BANGKOK (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Thai police fired stinging liquid from water cannon at thousands of Thai protesters in the capital on Friday (Oct 16) in the most violent escalation of three months of demonstrations against the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former junta leader.
Protesters rallied at the main intersection near the MBK Center shopping mall in central Bangkok - defying a government ban on gatherings for a second day - and pushed back against helmeted police who advanced with batons and riot shields.
"Get out, get out," the protesters chanted as police used the heaviest force yet to stop three months of protests that have challenged King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s monarchy as well as demanded the removal of Mr Prayut.
"The dictatorial government is using violence to disperse the people’s movement," said Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, one of the protest leaders.
The King has made no direct comment on the protests, but in comments broadcast on state television on Friday, he said Thailand “needs people who love the country and love the monarchy”. The comments were pre-recorded from an event a day earlier.
Until now, police had not used major force to suppress peaceful protests that have drawn tens of thousands of people, although more than 40 demonstrators – including several leaders - have been arrested in the past week.
A ban on gatherings of more than five people was imposed on Thursday.
"We’ve issued warnings against illegal acts," police spokesman Yingyot Thepchamnong told reporters. "After this there will be intensive measures in enforcing the law."
Reuters journalists said water turned on the protesters contained chemicals that made them sting.
Police spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen defended the use of water cannon as proportionate. The chemicals in the water were not dangerous, he said. “The police abided by international standards to disperse the demonstration,” he told a news conference.
Organisers told protesters to disperse more than three hours after they gathered.
“I am not afraid for myself. I fear more for the future of the country,” said one protester Poom, 31, who did not want to give his full name.
Mr Prayut first took power as army chief in a 2014 coup.
Critics say he engineered a general election last year to keep hold of power as a civilian prime minister. He says the election was fair.
Protesters also want a new Constitution, to replace one drafted under military rule.
"I'm not quitting," Mr Prayut told reporters after an emergency Cabinet meeting.
"The government must use the emergency decree. We have to proceed because the situation became violent... It is being used for 30 days, or less if the situation eases."
He warned people not to violate the emergency measures, saying: "Just wait and see... If you do wrong, we will use the law."
Calls have also built up among protesters for reforms to the monarchy, which is accused by protesters of helping to entrench decades of military influence in politics.
Protests have been largely peaceful.
The only specific incident cited by the government for the imposition of emergency measures was one in which Queen Suthida's motorcade was jeered by protesters, but it also said protests were damaging the economy and national security.
Police said on Friday that two men would be charged with attempted violence against the Queen, which carries a possible death sentence, if her life is thought to have been threatened.
Even if not, the charge can mean life in jail.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was concerned about the situation in Thailand, said Ms Ravina Shamdsani Said, a spokeswoman for commissioner Michelle Bachelet.
"We are particularly concerned about the application of serious charges, including the crime of sedition, against individuals for peacefully exercising their fundamental rights," she told a briefing in Geneva.
Parliamentary opposition parties also condemned the emergency measures.
"Pheu Thai Party calls on General Prayut Chan-o-cha and the state officials to lift the emergency decree and to stop intimidating the people in all manners and to release those who were arrested immediately," said the party, which has the most seats in Parliament.