Thai Protesters Defy New State of Emergency

After a confrontation with the royal motorcade, the government is cracking down.

Protesters attend a rally  in Bangkok on Oct 15.
Protesters attend a rally in Bangkok on Oct 15. Getty Images

BANGKOK—A little over 12 hours after Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha declared a severe state of emergency on Thursday to quell the peaceful protests in Bangkok, protesters were pushing police out of Ratchaprasong intersection, in the heart of the city. The protests would last into the night, with crowds of demonstrators hemmed in by luxury shopping malls as student-led protesters gave a decisive and defiant rebuke to the government.

After a raucous march on Wednesday evening to Government House, the seat of the Thai government, Thai citizens woke to find protesters forced off government grounds, a state of emergency declared, and protest leaders arrested—further galvanizing the protesters.

“It appears that various groups of people have persuaded, incited, and carried out a public gathering, which is against the Public Assembly Act, in Bangkok, creating turbulence, chaos, and disorder for people,” Prayuth said on Thursday, announcing the state of emergency with authority granted under the 2005 emergency powers decree. The announcement drew fire from human rights groups.

Among the protesters’ demands are Prayuth’s resignation, drafting of a new constitution, and the reform of the monarchy. Prayuth, who took power in a 2014 coup, has maintained his grip with the aid of the military.

Aside from the nearly daily protests around the country from university students, high schoolers, and dedicated protesters, the protesters are attempting to resurrect the history of Thailand’s democratic legacy. The result has been a battle of wills between the protesters and the Thai authorities.

Three weeks ago, protests culminated in the erection of a plaque to replace the one that disappeared in 2017, which commemorated Thailand’s transition from absolute monarchy in 1932. The new pro-democracy plaque was removed by authorities overnight. Similarly, months of protest and debate to amend the constitution met with disappointment when the government responded by delaying its decision until November.

After a brief scuffle with police to take over Ratchadamri Road under the BTS station in central Bangkok, the protests remained peaceful into the evening, when protesters tore open the security gate at Ratchaprasong to cheers from an electrified crowd. After 9:30 p.m., police vehicles attempted to enter the area but were turned back.

“It is an exciting day, yes? This is very important for all Thai people,” said Tak, 56, taking a selfie with the broken BTS gate. “Thai people have been coming together. We wait so long.”

Via loudspeaker, the police read out the emergency decree from Prayuth to boos, jeers, and three-finger salutes, a gesture taken from the Hunger Games films that has become a symbol of Thailand’s pro-democracy struggle.

The protest leaders Anon Nampa, 36, and Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, 22, were arrested on Thursday, and the remaining Free Youth student protest leaders reasserted in a statement that protesting is a human right. Anon tweeted Thursday that he was being taken by helicopter to Chiang Mai without a lawyer.

“Please release my friends,” said a protester choosing to be referred to as Ashley on Thursday, echoing the “Free Our Friends” chant of the evening and holding an anti-SLAPP sign. “In Thailand, we have this problem not being able to speak. … They arrested 21 of our friends at 4 a.m. last night.”

Along with Anon and Parit, the activists Prasit Krutharot, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, and Nutchanon Pairoj were arrested. Parit, Panusaya, and Nutchanon have been denied bail. Protests in northern Chiang Mai were held in solidarity as well on Thursday.

With so many of the protest leaders detained, the pro-democracy protests on Thursday were led by the lesser-known protester Panupong Jadnok, or Mike Rayong. Rather than the stage lights and high-profile rappers who were a feature of the August protests, Thursday’s ad hoc gathering would see Panupong yelling into a sound system in the back of a pickup truck to an ever increasing crowd.

The government’s state of emergency followed a day of tense protests at the Democracy Monument, a key site in Bangkok’s history of protest. Only a few thousand protesters made it to the Democracy Monument at noon on Wednesday, dwarfed by roads lined with yellow-clad pro-royalists trucked in on military vehicles, double-decker tourist buses, and even garbage trucks in a show of force.

More than 10,000 pro-democracy protesters would eventually turn out to march on Government House that evening, a motley crew of students, older protesters, and the beleaguered red shirts—older protesters who originally rallied in 2010 against a military coup four years earlier.

By the end of the day, the protesters had broken through a spate of police barricades to Government House, and riot police dispersed stragglers in the early hours. On Thursday, Bangkok woke to its second state of emergency, following the COVID-19 emergency decree that began in March.

The new state of emergency bans gatherings of five or more as well as publishing news or online information that could create fear or affect national security. As of Thursday, True Visions, the Thai broadcaster owned by the Charoen Pokphand group—Thailand’s largest private company—has been censoring CNN coverage of the protests.

The government received the justification it needed to crack down on the largely peaceful nationwide protests when the protesters blocked a motorcade carrying members of King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s family, mentioned directly when Prayuth declared the state of emergency.

Intent as the government is to use the royals to shield itself against criticism, it has previously been reticent to use the monarchy as a weapon, especially in line with Section 112 of the Criminal Code, also known as the lèse-majesté law. The government is loath to use Section 112 as it brings a great deal of criticism, and even the king has condemned its use on civilians, with the authorities relying instead on charges of sedition and what are termed “computer crimes,” usually involving social media posts.

Thai protests usually avoid the taboo issue of the royal family. But in the last few months, protests have included calls for reform of the monarchy and have not shied away from criticizing the king, who is far less popular than his father, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016. Protesters accuse him of living a life of luxury in Germany, rather than spending time in his own country, an issue that has become especially acute during the pandemic. Protesters gave the three-finger salute as they slowed the motorcade of Queen Suthida, the king’s fourth wife, and the police have issued arrest warrants for those involved in the incident.

Pheu Thai, a prominent opposition party, issued a statement condemning the emergency decree but also denied earlier reports that it was mobilizing supporters. Parliament members of Move Forward, another opposition party, also condemned the move.

“The government must release the demonstrators, immediately lift the state of emergency, and stop harassing civilians,” said Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the founder of the Progressive Movement and former leader of the Future Forward Party, which was disbanded by Prayuth’s government in its wide-ranging opposition lawfare this year.

Without elections, Prayuth’s resignation, or a rewriting of the constitution, there is no clear way forward for either the military-controlled government or the protesters.

“They ignore us for so long,” said one protester standing arm in arm on Ratchadamri. “Can they ignore this?”

Tyler Roney is a journalist in Thailand.

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