Thousands of Thai protesters return to streets after police clashes

Thousands of Thai pro-democracy protesters massed in multiple locations across Bangkok Saturday, defying an emergency decree banning gatherings for the third consecutive day after confrontations saw riot police use water cannon on peaceful demonstrators.

But the escalation in police tactics has not cowed the burgeoning youth-led movement, which is demanding the resignation of a premier first brought to power in a military coup and reform of the kingdom’s powerful monarchy.

“I’m concerned for my safety but if I don’t come out, I have no future,” said business student Min, 18, equipped with a helmet and gas mask as she arrived in Bangkok’s northern Lat Phrao district where more than 2,000 protestors took over a major intersection.

They raised a three-finger salute as passing vehicles honked in support and flashed a thumbs-up at the mostly black-clad protesters.

The Lat Phrao location, as well two others across Bangkok, was announced an hour before the scheduled protest time — with organisers outsmarting authorities who had closed roads to two suspected venues that ended up not being used.

Across the Chao Phraya river, around 2,500 rallied in the western Wongwian Yai district chanting “Long live the people, down with dictatorship!”, while in southeastern Udomsuk another 5,000 brought busy traffic to a standstill.

Carrying signs saying “You can’t kill us, we’re everywhere” and “Stop hurting people,” more than 10,000 protestors had so far gathered across the three locations, according to AFP reporters on the scene.

For the mostly-young demonstrators, Friday’s crackdown was a big learning curve, said Aim, whose friends were blasted with stinging liquid when police fired water cannon.

“We had no armour, just umbrellas,” said the 25-year-old public servant, grasping a pair of goggles.

The Free Youth, one of the movement’s main organising groups, had warned protesters in an online post to be “prepared both physically and mentally… and to cope with a crackdown if it happens”. 

“I’m ready to fight,” said 20-year-old Tortor, carrying a backpack stuffed with a gas mask.

Operators of both the Skytrain and underground rail networks had shut down services city-wide to prevent protesters from joining.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha announced Friday an emergency decree banning gatherings of more than four people would be imposed for at least a month.

The former army chief, who masterminded a coup in 2014 before being voted into power last year in an election protesters say was rigged in his favour, also rebuffed calls for his resignation.

‘You’re a tyrant’

At least 65 prominent protesters have been arrested since Tuesday, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights told AFP on Saturday, as authorities escalated a crackdown on months of slowly building unrest.

Eight have since been released, including activist Tattep “Ford” Ruangprapaikitseree, who was bailed on Saturday after his detention the previous night. 

He quickly went on Facebook to denounce the use of violence against unarmed protesters.

“The government is no longer legitimate. Prayut Chan-O-Cha, you’re a tyrant,” he said in a livestream.

Two other activists were arrested Friday under a rarely used law banning “violence against the queen” after they joined a group Wednesday that surrounded a royal motorcade carrying Queen Suthida, flashing a pro-democracy salute as the car drove by.

Both men, one of whom has been released on bail, could face life in prison if convicted. 

At least three protesters sustained slight injuries and five officers were admitted to the police hospital in Friday’s clashes, authorities said.

The government insisted the use of force had been lawful to stop those trying to “create divisions” in the country.

“There was no victory or defeat for either side. It’s a defeat for all Thais,” government spokesman Anucha Burapanchaisri said in a statement.

Royal reminder

The pro-democracy movement is making an unprecedented challenge to the kingdom’s powerful monarchy.

Protesters are demanding the abolition of a strict royal defamation law, which carries jail sentences of up to 15 years per charge, and for the monarchy to stay out of politics.

The institution currently wields enormous influence and is flanked by an arch-royalist military and billionaire clans.

Since ascending the throne in 2016, King Maha Vajiralongkorn has taken personal control of the palace’s vast fortune — worth an estimated $60 billion — and moved two army units under his direct command.

The king has yet to address the civil unrest directly, but during a ceremony broadcast on Friday, he told his subjects that Thailand “needs people who love the country, people who love the institution of the monarchy”.

The government insists the reforms to the royal family are off-limits, but this position was becoming untenable, said International Crisis Group analyst Matthew Wheeler.

“The degree of repression necessary to effectively reinstate the prohibition, including online, would tarnish both the government and the monarchy.”