Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP
The Thai government has declared a “state of emergency” in the capital, Bangkok, following an emergency day of anti-government protests in which protesters blocked and chelated a royal motorcade in violation of strict laws banning any criticism of the monarchy.
On Wednesday, masked protesters shouted and lit up the three-fingered greeting from The Hunger Games this came to symbolize their resistance movement as they mocked King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Sutida, locked in the royal limousine.
The incident was a sudden departure to a country where ordinary Thais were taught from birth to honor the monarchy and even to worship in the presence of the king.
In Thailand, which has a long history of coups, the monarchy often gives at least tacit approval to military rule. Politicians, in turn, often blur the line between government and the crown, using laws designed to protect the king – which carries heavy sentences of up to 15 years in prison – to silence political opponents.
The government’s emergency dawn decree was quickly followed by riot police, who moved to break up protests and arrest student leaders around the office of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, a former army general who seized power. in a coup in 2014, protesters called on Priut to withdraw constitutional reforms, including new restrictions on the monarchy’s power.
The declaration also bans the gathering of more than five people and the publication of news or messages online that could “harm national security.” The statement said measures were needed as Wednesday’s anti-government demonstration caused “chaos and disorder”.
The Bangkok Postciting unnamed government sources, said hundreds of soldiers from the western province of Kanchanaburi had been sent to parliament and that 300 more would be sent to guard the Government House.
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However, tens of thousands of protesters ignored the ruling, gathering peacefully in other parts of the capital, including a prestigious university and the city’s iconic monument to democracy.
Outside a popular shopping mall in central Bangkok, people were heard shouting, “Down with dictatorship. … Get out … Free our friends,” referring to the arrested student leaders, according to the Bangkok Post.
“Like dogs in a corner, we are fighting to the death,” said Panupong “Mike Rayong” Jadnok, one of the most prominent protest leaders who remains free, told a crowd rally near the Ratchaprasong city crossroads, according to Reuters. “We’re not going back. We’re not going to run away. We’re not going anywhere.”
The public rebuke of the royal family on Wednesday comes four years after the death of the widely respected king Bumibol Adulyadej, known as Rama IX. In contrast, many Thais are outraged by Bumibol’s son, Vajiralongkorn, who spends much of his time outside the country, appearing to be lavish, even though the country’s economy is suffering from the pandemic.
Some experts believe that by blocking the royal motorcade, the protests – which began in March but were delayed by the coronavirus pandemic to reappear in July – have entered a more dangerous phase.
Kevin Huyson, an honorary professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a veteran Thai research scientist, called the situation “unprecedented.”
“Yet this is a reflection of how a new generation of protesters sees the military-backed monarchy and regime as intertwined, and that political reform requires reform of the monarchy as well,” Huyson told the Associated Press.
Michael Montesano, coordinator of Thailand’s research program at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told the AP that the country was entering “dangerous territory.”
“What seemed like a stalemate that the Prayuth government was running with reasonable success has now become a full-fledged crisis, following an incident involving the Queen’s motorcade marching down a street in which active protests took place and the arrests of protest leaders.” he.
Wednesday’s protest came on the anniversary of a 1973 student-led uprising against a military dictatorship, when troops deployed to quell the riots killed dozens of protesters.
In 2010, the Thai military again quelled populist anti-government protests, killing more than 80 people.
Michael Sullivan, a NPR reporter from Bangkok, contributed to this report.