BANGKOK - Thousands of people occupied an intersection in downtown Bangkok on Thursday (Oct 15) in defiance of the government's declaration of a "serious emergency", demanding detained leaders of a months-long protest movement be freed.
The mostly young protestors, watched closely by 2,500 policemen, 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". Shopping 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.
Thursday'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 which officials say helps them overcome administrative hurdles to control the coronavirus pandemic.
Thursday's elevated emergency decree came one day after some anti-government protestors shouted abuses 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 protestors 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 openly 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.
On Thursday's morning, police swooped in to arrest several key protest leaders, like 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 Time on Thursday 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 House. Protestors want to put pressure on lawmakers ahead of the next parliament sitting which will take place on Nov 1.
Meanwhile, reports of increased security presence in parliament stirred unease in the coup-prone country.
Mr Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the Move Forward Party where lawmakers have been active in bailing out protest leaders, told reporters: "There are now soldiers in the 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, the 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 into 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."