The state of emergency decree, announced on state television, is needed to “maintain peace and order” and end “illegal public gatherings” in Bangkok, the government said. In the summer, tens of thousands of Thais – led by young protesting students – rallied against Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and called for changes to Thailand’s constitution. They also focused on the Thai monarchy, which is protected by the strictest laws of the lèse-majesté in the world and has enjoyed divine status in the country for decades.
Authorities say the decree was in response to Wednesday̵
Direct manifestations of discontent such as that of the monarchy were once unthinkable even months ago, but have become more apparent as the movement has gathered steam, with protesters carrying banners and posters mocking the Thai king.
Following the convoy incident, protesters broke through police lines and marched on the Government House, the prime minister’s residence. Thousands gathered there overnight until they were released by riot police in the early morning sweep.
The emergency decree will also ban the publication of news or media that could “create fear” or “affect national security”, and the police will now have the power to stop people from entering any area designated by the authorities.
Still, activists called on protesters to gather at Bangkok’s Ratchaprasong junction on Thursday afternoon, where the government forcibly cracked down on Red Shirt protesters in 2010, forcing it to close one of the city’s most iconic shopping and tourist districts.
Pro-democracy protesters say the movement has exceeded the point of no return and said Thais would not be embarrassed by the emergency decree.
The Thai protest movement began to take shape in July amid a deteriorating economic climate and in response to years of dissatisfaction with the erosion of democracy there. After the junta took power in a coup in 2014, Prayut, an army general, won a controversial election late last year. The vote was widely seen as rigged and an attempt to allow the ruling junta to extend its power through the ballot box.
A new pro-democracy political party, popular with young people, the Party of the Future Forward, won the third largest share of the vote in the same election, but was forced to disband earlier this year.
Thai students led the protests and broke a long-standing taboo in August when they directly took over the monarchy and the power it has in Thai society, as well as growing wealth. Although Thailand went from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in a bloodless revolution in 1932, the palace retained extensive powers and was deeply embedded in the country’s economic and cultural fabric.
The monarchy also failed to stabilize political tensions in Thailand, which were rocked by a series of coups that established the military junta’s dominance over democratically elected politicians.
The latest coup in 2014 also led to a new constitution, at the request of the current king, which further undermined democracy by changing voting procedures to stop any political party from dominating the Thai parliament.
The current King Vajiralongkorn took the throne in 2016 after the death of his father, the revered King Bumibol Adulyadej, who reigned for seven decades and was the longest reigned monarch in the world when he died. The king spends most of his time in Germany, adding to the resentment of Thais, who consider him lavish, even as Thailand’s economy suffers from the effects of the new coronavirus.
Paritta Wangkiat in Bangkok contributed to this report.