Authorities in Thailand closed almost all mass rail transit in the Bangkok capital as thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets, opposing a ban on large public gatherings for the third day in a row.
A mass demonstration, originally planned for one place on Saturday, was diverted to the sites of three transit stations in the city center, with protesters chanting “Please get out,” a reference to the prime minister and flashing three fingers becoming a symbol of resistance. the country.
Protests against Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s government, which began earlier this year, picked up speed this week as authorities escalated efforts to stop the movement. The government issued an emergency decree Thursday banning the gathering of more than five people.
More than 12,000 people joined a demonstration in violation of the order later that day, according to police estimates, and organizers called for the protests to continue. They have largely united behind three main demands: dissolving the government, a new constitution, and ending harassment of government critics.
Mr Prayut, a former army chief, led a coup in 2014 and chaired the junta’s government for nearly five years before calling last year’s election, which made him an elected leader. Polls were overshadowed by claims by opposition leaders and pro-democracy activists that the election process was in favor of the military-backed party.
Some activists exceeded three demands, violating long-standing taboos by openly criticizing the nation’s powerful monarchy. An emergency decree issued on Thursday cited an incident involving the royal family after some protesters chanted slogans as a motorcade carrying the queen passed.
Thailand has one of the strictest lèse-majesté laws in the world, punishing up to 15 years in prison for alleged insults to the royal family. While authorities refrained from enforcing the law against these protesters, two activists were recently charged under another clause, claiming they intended to harm the queen.
Mr Prayut told reporters on Friday that he had no intention of resigning. The palace did not comment on the protests.
On Friday, police deployed water cannons for the first time to disperse crowds, deepening public outrage. In scenes reminiscent of anti-government protests in Hong Kong, protesters lined up in front of police for riots huddled behind a wall of open umbrellas to protect themselves from splashes of blue-pigmented water, a tactic sometimes used by police to identify those present.
Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong, a key figure in protests against Chinese influence in the territory, shared on Twitter early Saturday a photo of him flashing three fingers with the hashtags “#StandWithThailand” and “#MilkTeaAlliance”, a reference to an online coalition of Asian pro-democracy activists. .
Several thousand people joined the protest on Saturday afternoon at the Lat Phrao intersection in Bangkok, where some handed out safety helmets and goggles to others who were leaking. The protesters were mostly young, some teenagers, many with raincoats and protective eyes, waiting for a confrontation. with the police. Some protesters said the liquid sprayed by water cannons the day before had burned their eyes.
“Instead of using water cannons to pursue us, the government should listen to what we have to say,” said Shim Muangtong, a 22-year-old student. “We are the next generation, we want space to express our opinion freely. We will not use violence, we come here with bare hands, we just want them to hear what we say. “
Authorities are struggling to limit demonstrations as protesters become more courageous. In what human rights groups called repression, more than 50 activists were arrested this week, including several prominent leaders. One of the two men accused of plotting to injure the queen, student activist Bunkueanun Paothong, was released on bail.
Anti-government protests are common in Thailand, but for many years have been characterized by clashes between two political groups. The current movement is different, analysts say, led by a new generation of pro-democracy activists who are less attached to tradition and more connected to the world beyond their borders.
“What makes these protests different is that the forces that are are against a generation that simply can’t stand it anymore,” said Michael Montesano, coordinator of the Thai research program at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. The reason they will no longer accept it is because they have access to the internet and have an idea of how things work in other parts of the world. ”
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