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Thousands of Thais defy crackdown on protests in Bangkok

Thailand protests

Thousands of Thais defy crackdown on protests in Bangkok

Police use of water cannon fires up more demonstrators on streets of capital and other cities.

Thousands of Thais defy crackdown on protests in Bangkok | World news | The Guardian

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Thousands of Thais defy crackdown on protests in Bangkok

Police use of water cannon fires up more demonstrators on streets of capital and other cities

Sat 17 Oct 2020 19.30 BST

First published on Sat 17 Oct 2020 14.32 BST

Police use water cannon to disperse protesters during an anti-government rally in Bangkok.
Photograph: AFP/Getty

Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Bangkok and other Thai cities on Saturday, defying a crackdown against a pro-democracy movement that has challenged both the king and the prime minister.

Youth-led rallies have spread across Thailand over recent months, with protesters making of the country’s monarchy, which is protected by a harsh lese-majesty law and which, until recently, was considered untouchable. They have also called for changes to the constitution, and the resignation of the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who first came to power during the 2014 coup.

The authorities have attempted to halt protests by introducing an emergency decree in the capital that bans gatherings of five or more people, and by arresting dozens of activists, including prominent student leaders. On Friday, the capital’s transport system was shut down, yet protesters still poured onto the streets. To outmanoeuvre the authorities, crowds assembled at several protest points across Bangkok, while rallies also took place across other Thai cities.

Some carried signs saying “stop hurting people”, after riot police used water cannon to disperse thousands of protesters, including school students, on Friday. The water contained chemical irritants that stung protesters’ eyes.

The authorities’ use of force not only provoked condemnation from human rights groups, but also appeared to spark even greater anger among protesters, driving more to join rallies.

“I condemn those who cracked down on the protesters and those who ordered it. You all have blood on your hands,” said the protest leader Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, who was released on bail following his arrest on Friday.

The police spokesman, Yingyos Thepjamnong, told a news conference: “We will primarily negotiate. Enforcing the law will be step by step, using methods that follow international standards.”

On Saturday, no violence occurred, and protesters dispersed by 8pm. In the evening, the prominent student activist Panupong Chadnok, also known as Mike Rayong, was arrested by undercover officers. At least 65 protesters have been arrested since Tuesday, according to the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. Most protest leaders remain in detention, prompting crowds to chant “we are all protest leaders” and vow to continue as a leaderless movement.

Protests first began in February, prompted by a court decision to ban Future Forward, but rallies were halted by coronavirus measures. Under lockdown, anger grew, fuelled by inequality – brought into sharp focus by the pandemic – and by the abduction of the dissident Wanchalearm Satsaksit, the ninth pro-democracy activist to disappear in recent years.

The student-led movement has called for major reforms to the monarchy, demanding that its budget and power should be curbed, and that it should be accountable to the people. The king should not interfere with politics, protesters have said, nor should criticism of the institution be forbidden.

has some of the strictest lese-majesty laws in the world, and anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the king, queen, heir-apparent or regent” can face up to 15 years on each charge.

The Royal Palace has not commented on their demands, though on Friday, Royal News, a segment played nightly on Thai TV, showed King Maha Vajiralongkorn meeting with former communists, whom he told: “The country needs people who love the country and love the monarchy,” he said. The king, who has been criticised for spending most of his time in Germany, is currently in Thailand.

Protesters are also calling for changes to the constitution, which they say unfairly weighed last year’s elections in Prayuth’s favour. He denies this, and has refused to resign.

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