Thousands of people occupied an intersection in downtown Bangkok yesterday in defiance of the government's declaration of a "serious emergency", demanding that detained leaders of a months-long protest movement be freed.
The mostly young protesters, watched closely by 2,500 police officers, brought traffic to a standstill at Ratchaprasong junction in the commercial district, chanting slogans like "I am not afraid", "free our friends" and "lackeys of dictators".
Speaking through loudhailers on the back of pick-up trucks, protest leaders like Panupong Jadnok declared: "We are fighting till our deaths."
Malls in the area shut early.
Ratchaprasong was last occupied in 2014 by protesters seeking to drive out the government headed by then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The unrest ended in a military coup.
Yesterday's declaration of serious emergency in Bangkok, issued in the wee hours, banned public gatherings of five or more people. It gave security officials broad powers to censor news, detain suspects and search people without warrants. It also put the power of exercising this decree in the hands of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan.
Thailand has technically been under a state of emergency since March, a status that officials say helps them overcome administrative hurdles to control the coronavirus pandemic.
Yesterday's elevated emergency decree came a day after some anti-government protesters shouted abuse and flashed the three-finger anti-dictatorship salute at a passing convoy bearing Queen Suthida and Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti in Bangkok.
Later that evening, thousands of protesters occupied the streets surrounding the Government House.
The largely peaceful, youth-led rallies are taking place during one of King Maha Vajiralongkorn's sojourns in Thailand. The King, who spends much of his time in Germany, has been criticised by protest leaders for his expenditure and powers, which they say exceed his official status as a constitutional monarch. He personally controls two army units.
The open criticism has caused a backlash among royalists, who mustered supporters to dress in yellow and line the streets of inner Bangkok on Wednesday to greet the King's convoy as it made its way to a royal temple for a religious ceremony.
Profiles of key protest leaders
The 35-year-old human rights lawyer represents political activists and lese majeste defendants in court. During an Aug 3 rally, he shook Thailand by openly calling for the monarch's powers to be trimmed. Since then, he has frequently repeated his message on stage, opening the way for public discussion about the role of Thailand's powerful monarchy.
Nicknamed "Penguin", the fiery 22-year-old politics student at Thammasat University has been a political activist since high school, when he served as secretary-general of reform group Education for the Liberation of Siam. In 2018, he co-founded the Student Union of Thailand to mobilise students across the country. He is also a key member of United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, a student group that has emerged as the most virulent critic of the monarchy.
Nicknamed "Rung", the 22-year-old sociology and anthropology student at Thammasat University is also a leader of the student group United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration. On Aug 10, she riled royalists by reading out a list of 10 demands related to the monarchy that included trimming the royal budget and stopping publicity efforts excessively glorifying the monarchy. At a massive rally outside the Grand Palace on Sept 19 and 20, she tried to deliver a petition directly addressed to the King via his privy council president.
Better known as "Mike Rayong", the 23-year-old Ramkhamhaeng University student first rose to prominence in July when he and his friend tried to protest against the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic during a visit by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in Rayong province. He is now at the forefront of the protest in downtown Bangkok's Ratchaprasong intersection.
As a law student in Khon Kaen University in 2014, Jatupat, better known as "Pai", was among five students from grassroots activist group Dao Din who flashed the three-finger anti-dictatorship salute in front of Mr Prayut. In 2016, together with over 2,000 others, he shared a BBC Thai profile of Thailand's new monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, that was posted on Facebook. He was charged with lese majeste and sentenced to 21/2 years in jail. He was freed a few weeks early under a royal pardon. He is now 29 years old.
Tan Hui Yee
Yesterday morning, police swooped in to arrest several key protest leaders, including human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa and university students Parit Chiwarak and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul. Pictures on social media showed Panusaya being taken away in a wheelchair as she passively resisted arrest. They have reportedly been denied bail.
Police spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen told The Straits Times yesterday evening: "We have made ourselves quite clear that these people have gathered in bad faith. They are not allowed to stay in this area."
Jutatip Sirikhan, one of the student protest leaders, said in a recorded statement: "The emergency decree is the effort by the state to discourage the democracy movement, obstruct the people and hold on to power."
The protest movement aims to amend the 2017 Constitution, which critics say is designed to keep Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in power. The former coup leader now leads a coalition government, but several former junta leaders, including Mr Prawit, continue to hold key positions.
Legislators were due to begin amending the Constitution last month, but unexpectedly delayed it during a joint session of the Lower and Upper Houses. Protesters want to put pressure on lawmakers ahead of the next Parliament sitting, which will take place on Nov 1.
Meanwhile, reports of an increased security presence in Parliament stirred unease in the coup-prone country.
Mr Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the Move Forward Party, whose lawmakers have been active in bailing out protest leaders, told reporters: "There are now soldiers in Parliament. I'm not sure if this is appropriate because we already have Parliament police stationed there. I wonder if this was allowed by the House Speaker."
Dr Eakpant Pidavanija, a former director of Mahidol University's Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, feared the government's attempt to impose control will drive more protesters onto the streets.
"On several occasions in the previous decade, the emergency decree did not stop people from coming out onto the streets," he told ST. "The government is trying to instil fear, but I think it will have the opposite effect."
Timeline of events
JUNE 9, 2019
The Thai King endorses Mr Prayut Chan-o-cha as prime minister, keeping him in the post he first took in a 2014 coup.
Constitutional court disqualifies vocal opposition figure Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit as a Member of Parliament.
Several thousand protesters demonstrate in Bangkok against Mr Thanathorn's disqualification.
FEB 21, 2020
Constitutional court bans Mr Thanathorn's Future Forward Party. The next day, hundreds protest against the decision.
The authorities impose a state of emergency to stop the spread of the coronavirus, limiting gatherings and travel.
The Free Youth group draws about 2,500 to a Bangkok protest and makes three demands: dissolve Parliament, amend the Constitution and stop harassing critics.
Human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa makes an unprecedented call for monarchy reform.
Students at Thammasat University list 10 demands for reforming the monarchy, including abolition of the lese majeste law against criticising the King.
More than 10,000 people join a protest at Bangkok's Democracy Monument.
Tens of thousands protest in the biggest demonstration since the 2014 coup.
Protesters install a plaque near the Grand Palace in Bangkok with the message that Thailand belongs to the people and not to the monarch. It was removed the next day.
The Thai Parliament votes to delay considering changes to the Constitution.
Protesters scuffle with police and chant at the King's passing motorcade to demand the release of 21 arrested protesters.
Tens of thousands of protesters march to Mr Prayut's offices and Government House, and set up camp to demand his removal.
The government orders emergency measures that include bans on gatherings of five or more people and on news that could affect national security.