Thailand declares emergency after unprecedented protest; top leaders taken into custody. One day after a student-led protest against Thailand’s traditional establishment saw an extraordinary moment wherein protesters heckled a royal motorcade, the government declared a strict new state of emergency for the capital on Thursday.
After the pre-sunrise declaration, riot police moved in to get out protesters who after a day of rallies and confrontation had gathered outside Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s office to push their demands, which include the former general’s stepping down, constitutional changes and reform of the monarchy.
Several top leaders of the protest movement were taken into custody, with one later declaring on his Facebook page that he had been denied access to a lawyer and was being forced onto a helicopter and taken to a city in the country’s north. Police said they had made 22 arrests.
Despite another ban against large public gatherings, several thousand people gathered in another area of the city later Thursday. The text of the emergency declaration said it was needed because “certain groups of perpetrators intended to instigate an untoward incident and movement in the Bangkok area by method of various methods and through different channels, including causing obstruction to the royal motorcade.”
The protest in Bangkok’s historic district on Wednesday, not far from glittering temples and royal palaces, was the third significant gathering by student-led activists who have been pushing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable — and legal — language by publicly questioning the role of Thailand’s monarchy in the country’s power structure.
Thailand’s royal family has long been considered sacrosanct and a pillar of Thai identity. Ruler Maha Vajiralongkorn and other key members of the royal family are protected by a ‘lese majeste law’ that has regularly been used to silence critics who risk up to 15 years in prison whenever deemed to have insulted the institution. The protest — hung on the commemoration of a 1973 student-led uprising against a military dictatorship — was complicated by the presence of royalist counter protesters who had gathered both to show support for the government and to greet the royal family as they traveled to and from a religious ceremony in the area.
That led to a moment captured in photos and video that circulated widely on social media in which what appeared to be protesters gestured and shouted just meters away from the royal motorcade. Such actions are unprecedented in Thailand, where those waiting for a royal motorcade regularly sit on the ground or prostrate themselves. Some experts say a line may have been crossed.
“What seemed to be a low-boil stalemate that the Prayuth government was managing with reasonable achievement has now, following the incident including the procession of the Queen’s motorcade down a street where an active protest was under way and the arrests of protest leaders, become an out and out crisis,” said Michael Montesano, coordinator of the Thailand Studies Program at the ISEAS-Yusof Isak Institute in Singapore.
“Dissimilar to even 48 hours ago, the country is in dangerous territory now.” Government spokesman Anucha Buraphachaisri announced on Thursday morning that the Prime Minister had ordered police to take strict action against those who obstruct a royal procession or otherwise insult the monarchy. One change is that police said they will install checkpoints around Bangkok for security purposes. Maintaining control will be facilitated by the new emergency decree for Bangkok, which bans unauthorized gatherings of more than five people and gives authorities other powers they deem needed to prevent unrest, including detaining people temporarily without charge.
It also outlaws news that distorts information or could cause a “misunderstanding.” Thailand is already under a national state of emergency as part of its efforts to fight the coronavirus, and it was not immediately clear how the new decree was different. Protesters gathered again in a Bangkok shopping district on Thursday afternoon and into the night. The crowd grew big enough to block a significant intersection flanked by upmarket malls and a famous sanctum, where they were addressed by a progression of speakers denouncing the government.
Police stood by while the crowd chanted rude trademarks calling for the Prime Minister to step down. They also chanted “Free Our Friends” in reference to the arrested leaders. “I want to fight for my future. I want to fight for my friends. I want to fight for my democracy. My country must be a democracy,” said 24-year-old NGO worker Aitarnik Chitwiset.
Deputy police spokesman, Colonel Kissana Phathanacharoen, warned earlier that calling for such a protest or attending one was against the law. Human rights group Amnesty International criticized the crackdown as “unjustified”. “These moves are obviously designed to stamp out dissent, and sow fear in anyone who sympathizes with the protesters’ perspectives,” the group said in a statement.
The protest movement was launched in March by university students, but quickly put on hold as Thailand was gripped by the coronavirus pandemic. It returned July, when the threat from the virus eased, and has since grown in size. The movement’s unique core demands were new elections, changes in the constitution to make it more democratic, and an end to intimidation of activists.
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