Protests have intensified over the past three months and on Wednesday tens of thousands marched in the capital Bangkok, setting up a camp in front of Government House, the prime minister’s office. The government said it also acted after protesters obstructed a royal procession.
Videos widely shared on social media showed police shielding the royal family’s yellow car as it moved through crowds of people holding their arms up in the three-finger salute that became the symbol of the democratic movement and shouting their demands.
“It is extremely necessary to introduce an urgent measure to end this situation effectively and quickly in order to maintain peace and order,” state television said.
The announcement was accompanied by a document outlining measures that went into effect from 4 a.m. local time (9 p.m. GMT), banning large gatherings and allowing authorities to ban people from entering any area they designate.
It also prohibits: “The publication of news, other media and electronic information containing messages that may create fear or intentionally distort the information, thereby creating misunderstandings that will affect national security or the peace and order.”
Soon after, police evacuated the remaining protesters from outside the government palace. Police said they arrested the leaders of the Parit “Penguin” Chirawat protest and human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa. Thai human rights lawyers said his earlier statement that Panupong Jadnok had also been arrested was incorrect.
A third leader, Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, was arrested later Thursday with photos on social media showing her being taken in a wheelchair as she bowed with three fingers. Rung had said a protest would take place at 4 p.m. (9 a.m. GMT) despite the emergency decree. Police made no immediate comment.
The Asia office of FIDH, an international human rights group, said at least 20 pro-democracy activists had been arrested.
Under the state of emergency, police can detain people without charge for 30 days, according to Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Thailand.
The protest movement aims to remove Prayuth, the former army chief who seized power in a 2014 coup aimed at ending a decade of violence between supporters and opponents of the establishment of the country, and which consolidated its position in the elections held last year.
They also want a new constitution and have called for a reduction in the powers of King Maha Vajiralongkorn – breaking a long-held taboo on criticism of the monarchy.
Such overt challenges to the monarchy are unprecedented in Thailand, where the influence of the royal family permeates all aspects of society and has sparked a backlash from Thailand’s staunchly pro-royalist establishment.
Arrived 2b where the royal procession of Queem & Prince passed yesterday. The incident was cited as a long factor requiring the declaration of a state of emergency before dawn in BKK this morning. Here are my observations. #WhatHappensinThaïlande #Thailand # Faculty of Representatives 2020 #Queen Sutida pic.twitter.com/Dy1736iill
– Pravit Rojanaphruk (@PravitR) October 15, 2020
The royal procession, which carried Queen Suthida and Prince Dipangkorn, was pushed intensely through a crowd of protesters who gave a three-fingered salute and shouted slogans in response.
Hours later, the Thai prime minister ordered the authorities to prosecute them.
– Boette Bae Right (@iBoate) October 14, 2020
“We started to see more of it than ever before,” said Scott Heidler of Al Jazeera, reporting outside Government House. “But it’s one thing to see people on the streets asking for this reform and another to see it come to fruition.
Tensions rose around the royal procession on Wednesday as people wearing yellow shirts – symbolizing their support for the monarchy – also began to gather. Some 15,000 police officers have been deployed.
“The monarchy has been around for over 700 years,” said Sirilak Kasemsawat, one of thousands of royal supporters waiting to “show that we love the king”.
Government spokeswoman Anucha Burapachaisri announced Wednesday evening that the Prime Minister had ordered the police to file a complaint against “the demonstrators who obstructed the royal procession”.
Charges will also be prosecuted against “those who have acted in a manner defaming the monarchy,” he said in a statement.
Several popular anti-government movements have emerged over the course of Thailand’s turbulent modern history, which has endured long episodes of political turmoil and more than a dozen successful military coups since 1932.
The military has long positioned itself as the sole defender of the ultra-rich king, who spends most of his time in Germany but whose power extends to all facets of Thai society.
Activists have repeatedly said that they only want the monarchy to adapt to modern times.
Their demands include the abolition of a strict royal libel law – which protects the king from criticism – and for the monarch to stay out of politics.
“We are just asking them to change with us,” protester Dear Thatcha told AFP news agency.
Since the movement began in July, dozens of anti-government activists have been arrested, charged with sedition and released on bail.