Thousands defy Thai crackdown after emergency decree

Agence France-Presse . Bangkok | Published at 12:50am on October 16, 2020

Thousands of Thai protesters gathered Thursday in defiance of a sweeping crackdown after authorities moved to crush months of pro-democracy demonstrations by imposing emergency powers and rounding up leading activists.

Protesters chanted ‘Prayut get out!’ and ‘Free our friends!’ as they confronted police at Ratchaprasong, a busy junction in central Bangkok, despite a new decree that bans gatherings of more than four people  —  aimed at quelling student-led demonstrations.

The government of prime minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, a former army chief who initially took power in a 2014 coup, has been the target of the protesters, but they have also taken aim at Thailand’s unassailable monarchy.

After the emergency measures were announced early Thursday, riot police dispersed hundreds of protesters who camped overnight outside the prime minister’s office.

Later, student leaders took to social media to urge supporters to take to the streets.

‘Come out in force  —  only giving moral support from home is not enough,’ said the Free Youth Movement, which had organised massive demonstrations in recent months.

That call was answered by thousands, including high school students, who covered the ID tags on their uniforms with duct tape.

‘I want democracy for my country,’ said Katherine, a 13-year-old who gave only her first name. ‘I want to be a part of big change.’

Three top activists were among nearly two dozen arrested earlier Thursday, including Parit ‘Penguin’ Chiwarak, according to Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul — another prominent figure, whose own detention was live-streamed on Facebook.

Anon Numpa, another leading activist, said he was forcibly taken by helicopter to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand ‘without my lawyer’.

‘This is a violation of my rights and is extremely dangerous to me,’ he wrote on Facebook.

It was not immediately clear how those arrested were accessing their social media accounts.

On Wednesday, there were unprecedented scenes as protesters crowded around the royal motorcade carrying Queen Suthida and Prince Dipangkorn, raising the three-fingered gesture of defiance adopted from ‘The Hunger Games’ books and films.

‘In the past when the royals drive by, we cannot even walk around the area. We have to stop everything and kneel on the ground,’ a protester who saw footage of the incident on social media said.

‘I am so surprised. It is happening now, we are changing a lot and it has moved forward. We are breaking taboos.’

The emergency measures announced Thursday also allow the seizure of ‘electronic communications equipment, data, and weapons suspected to cause the emergency situation’, a government spokesman said in a statement.

‘These are orders banning gatherings of five or more people... and banning distributing of news through electronic media that can affect national security,’ the spokesman said.

Overt challenges to the monarchy are unheard-of in Thailand, where the royal family’s influence permeates every aspect of society.

The king spends much of his time in Europe, but has been in Thailand in recent days for an annual Buddhist ceremony and the anniversary of his father’s death.

Enormously wealthy, he is supported by the powerful military — which has long positioned itself as the defender of the monarchy — as well as the establishment elite.

Leading opposition figure Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit warned the situation was critical and called on those arrested to be freed.