Tens of thousands of protesters opposed a ban on gatherings of more than four people for a mass at a major landmark in Bangkok on Sunday, carrying posters depicting activists detained for four straight days during strenuous anti-government rallies.
The youth-led movement has suffered a few more blows this week, with the number arrested after protesters surrounded a royal motorcade and flashed “democracy greetings” to Queen Suthida.
The government responded with emergency measures – including banning gatherings of more than four people in Bangkok – and the arrest of protest leaders calling for the removal of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, a former military chief brought to power in a 2014 coup.
Police also used water cannons on demonstrators in Bangkok’s central shopping district Friday in an escalation of tactics that triggered the anger of the Thai society.
I’m very concerned about the information about crashes on protesters in #Thailand. The declared “serious state of emergency” declared, and the arrests in Bangkok stifle freedom of assembly. The government needs to let protesters exercise their rights and seek dialogue and not suppress them. ”
– UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association (@cvoule) 16 October 2020
But the crash has only served to encourage the movement’s mostly young supporters, who in large numbers have turned up at rallying points announced at short notice in an attempt to overcome the authorities.
“I can not let the students fight alone,” said 24-year-old Phat, a first-time rallyer at Bangkok’s Victory Monument.
National Police spokesman Yingyos Thepjumnong warned protesters earlier Sunday that no rallies were being allowed “causing unrest and disorder”.
“If they defy it, the police will do whatever it takes to enforce the law,” he said.
But police kept a low-key presence on Sunday as local media said more than 20,000 people came down on the landmark from late afternoon, shouting “Free our friends” while carrying posters of those arrested.
The portrayed included human rights lawyer Anon Numpa, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak and Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul – three of the most recognizable faces in the movement, who have consistently called for reforms of the monarchy.
Among their demands is the abolition of a draconian royal libel law – which protects King Maha Vajiralongkorn from criticism – and a call for the monarch to stay out of the country’s turbulent policies.
Once taboo in Thailand, demands for royal reform are one of the biggest challenges for the kingdom’s conservative military-oriented government.
“There are groups of people who claim the monarchy to their own advantage and to get rid of their political opponents,” said a 24-year-old candidate who asked not to be identified.
“We will not get true democracy if there is no monarchy reform,” he told AFP.
Social media-wise protesters
Victory Monument, one of Bangkok’s busiest thoroughfares, was blocked by protesters, but they made room for emergency vehicles and sent supplies down human chains formed along streets leading to the roundabout.
Since the movement began in July, social media-wise protesters have taken advantage of unorthodox ways to spread their messages, send alarms through newly formed groups on Telegram – a secure messaging app – and borrowing tips from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.
Another protest site in Asok, a popular shopping and dining area, attracted a small group of protesters.
Gatherings were planned across the country – from Phuket in the south to Khon Khaen in the northeast, where students held up a portrait of Prayut with the words “Get out” scraped on it.
The group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported that at least 80 people have been arrested since Tuesday
So far, charges against the protesters have ranged from breaking emergency measures to incitement.
On Friday, however, two activists were indicted under a rarely-used law banning “violence against the queen” – which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
Authorities defended their use of force on Friday, saying it was in line with “international standards”.