Thailand Declares Emergency, Bans Rallies as Protests Swell

A pro-democracy protester displays a sign during a demonstration Thursday in the central business district of Bangkok

A pro-democracy protester displays a sign during a demonstration Thursday in the central business district of Bangkok. Gemunu Amarasinghe AP

That coup leader - former army chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha - is now the prime minister and the main target of protesters who have also broached the once unassailable subject of reforming the fabulously wealthy monarchy.

The announcement said that citizens have recently incited "illegal public assemblies" and confronted law enforcement in the Thai capital, so the government felt the need to introduce urgent measures to establish law and order in the country.

The decree bans gatherings of five or more people and the publication of news or online messages that could harm national security, stoke fear or intentionally distort information.

Since the declaration of a state of emergency on October 15, 2020, the police have arrested at least 22 activists, including several protest leaders, in front of Bangkok's Government House.

"We haven't been able to restore a true democracy yet", said 54-year-old Sun Pathong, a veteran of a decade of anti-estbalishment protests and counter protests before Prayuth took power in a 2014 coup.

Pro-democracy protesters hold up a three-fingered salute Thursday at Bangkok's Ratchaprasong intersection. Lauren De Cicca  Getty Images
Pro-democracy protesters hold up a three-fingered salute Thursday at Bangkok's Ratchaprasong intersection. Lauren De Cicca Getty Images

The latest demonstration brought out tens of thousands of protesters on Wednesday. Human rights lawyer and protest leader Arnon Nampa was arrested Thursday morning following a speech he made in the northern city of Chiang Mai on Wednesday.

Anyone criticising the monarchy in Thailand faces between 1.5 to 15 years in jail.

But Apichat Sathitniramai, an associate professor at Thammasat University, said the scene with the royal motorcade was really the sole factor in the government's decision.

Today's student demonstrators say there is no single leader - a strategy partly inspired by the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.

Some 10,000 Thai protesters have gathered 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.

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After the emergency measures were announced, police moved to disperse protesters - who stayed through the night outside the Government House - and arrested 22 activists.

Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn has sacked another six officials in a week of drama in the royal court.

They are demanding democratic reforms, including changes to the country's monarchy.

Small confrontations between royalist and anti-government protestors fizzled out just as quickly as they started.

They have adopted various references to popular culture, including the three-finger revolutionary salute used in the Hunger Games film series, which was again deployed on Wednesday when some protesters slowed a convoy of the Queen, Suthida. Other protesters said they still planned to go ahead.

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Analysts have said the acts of opposition to the nation's monarchy are unprecedented. However, these were then halted by Covid-19 restrictions, technically banning the gatherings under Thailand's coronavirus state of emergency - breaking the ban carried a possible two-year prison sentence. "Yet it is reflective of how a new generation of protesters sees the monarchy and military-backed regime as intertwined and that political reform demands reform of the monarchy as well".

The gesture is a way to signal support for greater democracy, but also anger towards the country's royalist military establishment at a time when entrenched inequality is worsening.

Yet despite such heavy-handed tactics, student leaders, most of whom are already facing various charges such as sedition, have pledged to carry on with their protests.

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