Thai authorities have arrested protest leaders under the sweeping emergency powers declared Thursday as they launched a crackdown on escalating pro-democracy demonstrations that have also targeted the irreplaceable monarchy.
Three of the top activists were among nearly 24 people arrested under a decree that also banned gatherings of more than four people after months of student-led protests against the government.
It comes a day after protesters challenged a royal procession – flashing the three-toed salute adopted from “The Hunger Games” books and films – in an unprecedented act of defiance against the monarchy.
After the announcement of emergency measures in the early hours of Thursday morning, hundreds of riot police dispersed the hundreds of protesters who were camping outside the prime minister’s office in Bangkok.
Army spokesman Lt. Gen. Santebong Tambia downplayed the importance of having military officers around some government buildings, writing on Facebook that they were there “to help law enforcement forces”.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha was commander of the army when the military seized power in a 2014 coup before winning the disputed elections in March of last year as a civilian.
Student leader Barrett Schwarak was among those arrested, according to Panossaia Sethijirawatanakul – another prominent activist, whose arrest was broadcast live on Facebook.
Anun Numba, another prominent figure in the protest movement, said he was taken by helicopter to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand “without a lawyer”.
“This is a violation of my rights and very dangerous for me,” he wrote on Facebook.
It was not immediately clear how the detainees accessed their social media accounts.
A government spokesman said that in addition to limiting gatherings to four people, the new emergency measures also allow confiscation of “electronic communication equipment, data and weapons suspected of causing in the state of emergency.”
“These are orders to prevent gatherings of five or more people … and to prohibit the distribution of news via electronic media that could affect national security,” the spokesman said in a statement.
– ‘Go all over the country’ –
The order was imposed after thousands of protesters gathered on Wednesday around the Democracy Monument in Bangkok before a royal motorcade passed by, scheduled to transport King Maha Vajiralongkorn and his family.
While police cordoned off most of the protesters away from the royal road, dozens of people were still present as the motorcade passed by. Queen Suthida, seated next to Prince Dipangkorn Rasmeguti, was seen staring out the window of a limousine as the protesters chanted the greeting with three fingers.
Public challenges to the monarchy like these are unheard of in Thailand, where the influence of the royal family permeates every aspect of society.
Tanatorn Yuangrungwangkit, a prominent opposition leader, condemned the crackdown and called on the government to “release all detainees”.
“The government must quickly find a way to respond to the protesters’ demands, otherwise the situation will spread across the country,” he said.
Student leaders took to social media to urge supporters to take to the streets on Thursday, but there was no immediate sign of heeding the calls.
The Free Youth Movement, which has organized mass demonstrations in recent months, said, “Get out strong – just moral support from home is not enough.”
Police said they would set up checkpoints around Ratchaprasong Junction, the site of a major crackdown in 2010, after Thailand’s largest retail brand urged people to congregate there.
The king spends most of his time in Europe, but has been in Thailand in the final days for an annual Buddhist ceremony and the anniversary of his father’s death.
He is extremely wealthy, and is supported by the powerful army – which has long positioned itself as the defender of the monarchy – as well as the established elite.
There have been several popular uprisings in the turbulent modern history of Thailand, which has suffered long periods of political turmoil and more than a dozen military coups since 1932.
In recent protests, leaders have repeatedly said that they only wish the monarchy to adapt to the modern era.
Their demands include repealing the strict royal defamation law – which shields the king from criticism – and keeping the king out of politics.
Since the start of the recent protests, dozens of activists have been arrested, accused of inciting sedition, and released on bail.
Government spokesman Anucha Purabachisri said the prime minister had ordered the police to bring charges against “the protesters who obstructed the royal motorcade” on Wednesday.
“They should face legal action without exception.”
Burr / fox