Updated at 1:35 p.m. ET on 2020-10-15
Thousands of pro-democracy activists gathered near the Erawan Shrine in downtown Bangkok on Thursday as they defied the prime minister’s overnight declaration of a “Serious Emergency Situation,” hours after 22 of their compatriots were arrested during a crackdown at dawn.
Labor activist Suwanna Tanlek encouraged the pro-democracy demonstrators to keep protesting against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha. They have been calling for Prayuth, who came to power following a 2014 coup, to resign.
“Let’s just come out on the streets, no need to deliver speeches, just occupy the streets,” Suwanna said, adding that nearly two dozen protesters were being held without bail after being arrested early in the morning.
The crowd responded to Suwanna with chants of “Prayuth get out,” and “free our friends.”
The protesters were out in the streets of the Thai capital, in defiance of a new ban on large gatherings that the government announced in the early hours of Thursday. The protesters broke up after 10 p.m. and activists left the scene as police said they were violating Thai law that limits political gathering to five people or fewer.
When Prayuth made the declaration, effective at 4 a.m. Thursday, he said the “Serious Emergency Situation” was necessary to preserve national security in the face of anti-government protests.
His announcement came a day after tens of thousands of pro-democracy and pro-royalist protesters marched in Bangkok and at one point blocked a motorcade carrying Thailand’s queen and her stepson
Groups of people had “incited or invited others to unlawful public gatherings in Bangkok,” acted “to affect the royal motorcade” and “committed severe actions that affected national security,” the announcement said. “It is extremely necessary to introduce an urgent measure to end this situation effectively and promptly to maintain peace and order.”
The prime minister maintained his schedule despite the protests, receiving Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi who spent Wednesday and Thursday in Bangkok, according to government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri.
He said the leaders discussed China’s COVID-19 vaccine, efforts to shore up the Thai economy including One Belt, One Road projects. They also discussed concerns about Mekong River water management concerns, but Anucha did not elaborate.
Before dawn Thursday, video footage from Reuters news service showed police with riot shields gathering to disperse the demonstrators who had camped out around Government House, ignoring Wednesday evening orders to leave the area.
Police spokesman Maj. Gen. Yingyod Thepchamnong told journalists that 22 protesters were arrested Thursday morning.
Yingyod said four protest leaders, Anon Numpa, Prasit Karutharoj, Panusaya Sithijirawattankul and Parit Chiwarak, were charged with sedition while the other 18 were charged with violating emergency decree.
The Thai Lawyer for Human Rights said Anon and Prasit were taken to the city of Chiang Mai, where they face other charges while Panusaya and Parit were remanded at Thunya Buri near Bangkok, adding all were denied bail.
Anon, who was arrested for a fourth time since the protests began, posted a message on Facebook Thursday evening from a court in Chiang Mai: “May all brothers and sisters keep fighting. My freedom is a minor thing compared with the whole democratic movement. I’m happy and proud to have fought along you all.”
A group of Southeast Asian lawmakers condemned the new ban imposed by the Thai authorities. The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) called it “a major threat to human rights in the country” and demanded that the government rescind it and release the detained pro-democracy activists immediately.
“What’s happening now in Thailand is an outright blatant abuse of emergency powers to crack down on fundamental freedoms and shield those in power from any form of legitimate criticisms,” Charles Santiago, a Malaysian MP who chairs APHR, said in a statement.
“The thousands that have taken to the streets in Bangkok, and nationwide, have done so peacefully, and are fully entitled to raise concerns about the current state of democracy in Thailand.”
On Tuesday, police arrested 21 activists who were preparing for the rally, according to an attorney with Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a local NGO. At the time, more than 60 activists had been arrested since the first protest on July 18, according to organizers.
Government spokesman Anucha warned citizens to be aware when commenting on social media.
“Please be careful in posting content or making comments because there are not only talks about the demonstration but there are misuses of social media,” he said, adding the government is concerned about possible confrontations between pro-democracy and pro-monarchy groups.
“The government does have concerns and declared the emergency to prevent unwanted incidents in the future, to keep internal peace, to prevent confrontation of the groups of difference ideologies. I believe we can still have a chance to discuss views in certain forums,” he said.
Thailand’s strict Lese-Majeste law criminalizes royal defamation with prison sentences of up to 15 years per offense.
Protests began in July
Young Thais – mostly university students – have taken to the streets to call for the ouster of a government filled with key figures from a 2014 military coup, as well as reforms to laws shielding the Thailand’s powerful monarchy, among other demands.
Wednesday’s rally was held on the 47th anniversary of a student uprising in 1973 that led to the overthrow of the dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn.
The demonstrators converged near a Bangkok landmark, the Democracy Monument, and later marched to Government House, the office of the prime minister, pledging to stay there until their demands, including his resignation, were met.
Estimates of the crowd size varied from the police estimate of 8,000 to the organizers’ claim of 100,000.
In addition, at least 25,000 royalist counter-protesters turned out, many of them wearing yellow shirts symbolizing support for the monarchy, according to an estimate provided by one of their leaders.
Meanwhile, protesters clad in red shirts – emblematic of support for ousted populist leaders Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, who were toppled by coups – joined the anti-government protesters.
The red-yellow partisan symbolism evoked street violence that in the past became the pretext for coups. Since converting from an absolute monarchy to democracy in 1932, Thailand has seen more than 20 military coups – including the most recent one led by Prayuth.
Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University, questioned the government’s actions.
“The government exercised power as if it were a military regime the same way Prayuth staged a coup,” he told BenarNews. “It underlined people’s doubts about whether this government is truly democratic.”