BANGKOK (REUTERS, AFP) – Thousands of Thai anti-government protesters took over key intersections in Bangkok on Sunday (Oct 18), defying a ban on protests for the fourth day with chants of "down with dictatorship" and "reform the monarchy."
Demonstrations have persisted despite the arrest of dozens of protesters and their leaders, the use of water cannon and shutdowns on much of Bangkok’s metro rail system in a bid to quell over three months of street action.
The government reacted with emergency measures – including banning gatherings of more than four people in Bangkok – and the arrest of protest leaders who have called for the removal of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha, a former military chief brought to power in a 2014 coup.
"Free our friends", the protesters called out as they stood in a rain, a mass of colourful ponchos and umbrellas. Some held up pictures of detained protest leaders.
Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said at least 80 protesters had been arrested since Oct 13 with 27 still being held.
Police have given no full breakdown.
“I cannot let the students fight alone,” said 24-year-old Phat, a first-time rallygoer at Bangkok’s Victory Monument.
National Police spokesman Yingyos Thepjumnong warned protesters earlier on Sunday that no rallies “causing unrest and disorder” would be allowed.
“If they defy it, police will do whatever is necessary to enforce the law,” he said.
But police kept a low-key presence on Sunday as local media said more than 20,000 people descended on the landmark from late afternoon shouting “Free our friends” while carrying posters of those arrested.
"We are committed to maintain peace and order. In order to do so we are bound by laws, international standards, human rights," police spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen told a news conference.
Demonstrators nonetheless distributed helmets and goggles to protect them during any attempt to disperse them by force.
Protesters say Prime Minister Prayut engineered last year’s election to keep power he seized in a 2014 coup – an accusation he denies.
The demonstrations have also become more openly critical of King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s monarchy, breaking a longstanding taboo, demanding curbs to its powers despite potential jail terms of up 15 years for anyone insulting the king.
During demonstrations by tens of thousands of people at multiple points across Bangkok on Saturday, protesters painted a flag on the road with "Republic of Thailand" written across it. The writing was painted out overnight.
The Royal Palace has made no comment on the protests but the King has said Thailand needed people who love the country and the monarchy.
Once-taboo in Thailand, the demands for royal reform is one of the biggest challenges facing the kingdom’s conservative military-aligned government.
“There are groups of people claiming the monarchy for their own benefit and to get rid of their political opponents,” said a 24-year-old graduate who asked not to be identified.
“We will not get true democracy if there’s no monarchy reform,” he told AFP.
Across Thailand, demonstrations were being organised in at least 19 other provinces in solidarity on Sunday.
Solidarity protests were also being held or planned in Taiwan, Denmark, Sweden, France, the United States and Canada.
Victory Monument, one of Bangkok’s busiest thoroughfares, was blocked off by protesters, but they made way for emergency vehicles and sent supplies down human chains formed along streets leading to the roundabout.
Since the movement started in July, the social media-savvy protesters have harnessed unorthodox ways of spreading their messages, sending alerts through newly formed groups on Telegram – a secure messaging app – and borrowing tips from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.
Another protest site in Asok, a popular shopping and restaurant district, drew a smaller group of protesters.
Gatherings were planned across the country – from Phuket in the south to Khon Khaen in the north-east, where students held up a portrait of Mr Prayut with the words “Get out” scrawled on it.
Links have grown between protesters in Thailand and Hong Kong in a so-called Milk Tea Alliance referring to drinks popular in both places.
Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong tweeted in support of Thai protesters.
"Their determination for #Thailanddemocracy cannot be deterred," he said.