Pro-democracy protesters flash the three-finger salute in Ratchaprasong district on Thursday

Protesters have taken to the streets again in the Thai capital Bangkok, defying a ban on gatherings and sweep of arrests of key protest leaders.

The protesters chanted “Free our friends!” – calling for the release of those detained in the crackdown.

Many held up a three-finger salute, which has become a symbol of the student-led protest movement.

An emergency decree was issued early on Thursday morning in response to protests in Bangkok on Wednesday.

The decree, which banned gatherings of more than four people gathering, came into effect in the early hours of Thursday morning, local time. In a televised announcement, the government said urgent measures were needed to “maintain peace and order”. More than 20 people were arrested, including three protest leaders.

But the protesters came out again on Thursday, with hundreds gathering peacefully in Bangkok’s Ratchaprasong district, many raising the now famous three-finger salute. Activist leader Panupong Jadnok addressed the crowd. Riot police gathered around the protesters and pictures form the scene showed clashes and some protesters being forcefully arrested.

The student-led protest movement began with calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army chief who seized power in a 2014 coup before he was appointed as premier after controversial elections last year. In recent months they have widened to call for curbs on the powers of King Vajiralongkorn, who now spends most of his time abroad.

The protesters’ calls for royal reforms are particularly sensitive in Thailand, where criticism of the monarchy is punishable by long prison sentences.

Pro-democracy protester and police officers clash during rally against the state of emergency at Ratchaprasong district in Bangkok, Thailand, 15 October 2020.
Pictures from the scene showed clashes between police and protesters
A pro-democracy protester reacts as he is being detained by police officers during a rally against the state of emergency at Ratchaprasong district in Bangkok, Thailand, 15 October 2020.
A pro-democracy protester is detained in Ratchaprasong district on Thursday

Police said on Thursday they had arrested about 20 people starting in the early hours of the morning. The BBC has learned that those arrested include three protest leaders – the human rights lawyer Anon Nampa, student activist Parit Chiwarak, widely known by his nickname “Penguin”, and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul.

In a widely watched livestream video, police officers were seen reading out charges to Ms Panusaya in a hotel room. Another video showed police putting her into a car as she and her supporters chanted slogans.

Mr Anon, 36, was the first to openly break the taboo on discussing Thailand’s monarchy by calling for reforms in August. Ms Panusaya became one of the most prominent faces of the protests after she delivered a 10-point manifesto urging royal reform later that month.

Announcing the emergency decree on state television, the government accused protesters of attempting to create “chaos and incitement of conflict and public disorder”, citing an “obstruction to the royal motorcade”. Some peaceful protesters on Wednesday had stood by and raised the three-finger salute as a convoy passed by carrying the queen. The protesters had been pushed back by police, allowing the convoy to pass.

Shortly after the decree took effect, riot police cleared protesters from outside the prime minister’s office in Bangkok. Some tried to resist, using makeshift barricades but they were moved back. Hundreds of police were seen on the streets even after protesters were dispersed.

In addition to limiting gatherings to four people, the decree puts restrictions on the media, prohibiting the publication of news “that could create fear or intentionally distort information, creating misunderstanding that will affect national security or peace and order”. It also allows authorities to designate any area as off limits to the public.

Analysis box by Jonathan Head, BBC News
Analysis box by Jonathan Head, BBC News

Few in Thailand will have been surprised to hear of the arrest of the main protest leaders, and the much tougher restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression. Some may even have been relieved that it did not end in bloodshed, as so often before in political crises here.

When Anon Nampa, a deceptively mild-looking lawyer, first called for an honest discussion about the monarchy, on 3 August, you could almost hear the collective intake of breath across the country at his boldness. When Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul read out 10 demands for royal reform and accountability from a university stage a week later, Thailand braced itself for a backlash. In a country where every constitution requires the king to “be held in a position of revered worship”, this was akin to blasphemy.

The backlash did not come. A government struggling under the weight of multiple challenges, from the dire economic outlook to a series of scandals, seemed reluctant to risk provoking further public anger.

But the persistence of large-scale rallies, where protesters ridiculed the royal institution, could not be tolerated for long, especially now that the king had returned to Thailand for an extended stay.

With their leaders locked up outside Bangkok and any public gatherings banned, the movement will find it hard to keep going. The authorities may also go after those they believe have been funding the protests.

But what has been said about the monarchy cannot be unsaid. A taboo has been broken. People of all ages, from all parts of the country, aside from die-hard royalists, now agree with the student leaders, that the monarchy is fair game in any overhaul of Thailand’s institutions. It is only a matter of time before we see similar protests again.

Why are students protesting?

The growing student-led democracy movement has become the greatest challenge in years to Thailand’s ruling establishment.

Protesters are demanding the resignation of Mr Prayuth, following his election in the controversial 2019 polls. They also seek the rewriting of the constitution, whose amendments in recent years have been disputed, as well as an end to the harassment of state critics. Mr Prayuth rejects accusations the electoral laws were fixed in his favour.

Since August, the calls for change have grown to include reform to the monarchy, sparking unprecedented public discussion of an institution long shielded from criticism by law.

Thailand's king and queen in a royal motorcade in Bangkok, Thailand October 14, 2020.
The king and queen travelled through Bankgkok as protests took place elsewhere in the city

There have been many protests against Mr Prayuth since the coup but a new wave of demonstrations began in February after a court ordered a fledgling pro-democracy opposition party to dissolve.

The Future Forward Party had proved wildly popular with young, first-time voters and garnered the third-largest share of parliamentary seats in the March 2019 election.

Protests were re-energised in June when prominent pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit went missing in Cambodia, where he had been in exile since the 2014 coup. His whereabouts remain unknown and protesters accuse the Thai state of orchestrating his kidnapping – something the police and government have denied.

Since July there have been regular student-led street protests. Rallies in the capital over the weekend were some of the largest in years, with thousands defying authorities to gather and demand change.

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