Thailand declares emergency after unprecedented protest

BANGKOK (AP) — Thai authorities declared a strict new state of emergency for the capital yesterday, a day after a student-led protest against the country’s traditional establishment.

After the pre-dawn declaration, riot police moved in to clear out demonstrators who after a day of rallies and confrontation had gathered outside Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s office to push their demands, which include the former general’s stepping down and constitutional changes.

Several top leaders of the protest movement were taken into custody, with one later declaring on his Facebook page that he was denied access to a lawyer and forced onto a helicopter and taken to a city in the country’s north. Police said they had made 22 arrests.

The text of the emergency declaration said it was needed because “certain groups of perpetrators intended to instigate an untoward incident and movement in the Bangkok area by way of various methods and via different channels, including causing obstruction to the royal motorcade.”

The protest on Wednesday in Bangkok’s historic district, not far from glittering temples and royal palaces, was the third major gathering by student-led activists.

The protest — held on the anniversary of a 1973 student-led uprising against a military dictatorship — was complicated by the presence of counter protesters who had gathered both to show support for the government and to greet the royal family as they travelled to and from a religious ceremony in the area.

Police stand guard as protesters sit at a traffic intersection during a rally in Bangkok. PHOTO: AFP

That led to a moment captured in photos and video that circulated widely on social media in which what appeared to be protesters gestured and shouted just metres from the royal motorcade. Such actions are unprecedented in Thailand, where those waiting for a royal motorcade regularly sit on the ground or prostrate themselves.

Some experts said a line may have been crossed. “What seemed to be a low-boil stalemate that the Prayuth government was managing with reasonable success has now, following the incident involving the procession of the queen’s motorcade down a street in which an active protest was under way and the arrests of protest leaders, become a full-blown crisis,” said coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Isak Institute in Singapore Michael Montesano. “Unlike even 48 hours ago, the country is in dangerous territory now.”

Government spokesman Anucha Buraphachaisri announced yesterday morning that the prime minister had ordered police to take strict action against those who obstruct a royal procession or otherwise insult the monarchy.

The new emergency decree for Bangkok, bans unauthorised gatherings of more than five people and gives authorities other powers they deem needed to prevent unrest, including detaining people at length without charge. It also outlaws the news that distorts information or could cause a ‘misunderstanding’. Thailand is already under a national state of emergency as part of its efforts to fight the coronavirus, and it was not immediately clear how the new decree was different.

One change is that police said they will install checkpoints around Bangkok for security purposes. Protesters were undaunted and gathered again in a Bangkok shopping district.

Deputy police spokesman Colonel Kissana Phathanacharoen warned that calling for such a protest or attending one was against the law.

“You cannot say that they are not aware of the order. We are making it clear,” Kissana said at a news conference.

Human rights group Amnesty International criticised the crackdown. Its deputy regional director Ming Yu Hah urged Thai authorities to “engage in constructive dialogue with the protesters.”

“The scale of today’s early morning arrests seems completely unjustified based on yesterday’s events. The assemblies were overwhelmingly peaceful. These moves are clearly designed to stamp out dissent, and sow fear in anyone who sympathises with the protesters’ views,” the group said in a statement.

The protest movement was launched in March by university students, but quickly put on hold as Thailand was gripped by the coronavirus pandemic. It came back in July, when the threat from the virus eased, and since grown in size.