(Update 1: adds details, minor edits throughout, changes head/lede)
Bangkok, Oct 15 (efe-epa).- Soldiers were seen Thursday morning outside parliament and Government House and 22 protesters arrested in Thailand’s capital after a state of emergency was declared before dawn to quash large but peaceful student demonstrations that have been gathering steam the past months.
Announced on state television, the decree bans political gatherings of more than four people and prohibits publishing and broadcasting news that may affect national security or peace and order.
It said “many groups of people have invited and held unlawful public gatherings in Bangkok,” that urgent measures were needed to maintain peace and order and that there had been actions affecting the royal procession.
Coinciding with the anniversary of the 1973 student revolution, thousands of protesters marched Wednesday afternoon and gather near the prime minister’s office to continue their calls for government reform and a limit on the monarchy’s powers – the latter an unprecedented demand in modern history.
Queen Suthida’s motorcade, which drove through the crowd of protesters, was met with shouting and three-finger salutes – a symbol of defiance to authority.
After the announcement of the emergency decree, riot police began to disperse protesters after 4 am on Thursday morning.
Student leaders Arnon Nampa, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak and Panupong Jadnok were arrested, with Arnon later posting on Facebook that he was being forced into a helicopter to be taken to Chiang Mai without a lawyer present.
Another student leader, Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, was also later presented with an arrest warrant, which she ripped up before police as the incident was livestreamed on social media.
In a press conference, Royal Thai Police spokesperson Yingyot Thepchamnong confirmed 22 activists had been detained and held at the Border Patrol Region 1 Camp in Pathum Thani, north of Bangkok.
In response, a protest was called for mid-afternoon in downtown Bangkok, despite the ban on political gatherings. Police and the army were expected to be setting up checkpoints to prevent the gathering.
Nonprofit organizations condemned the emergency decree and arrests, with Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns, Ming Yu Hah, saying: “These moves are clearly designed to stamp out dissent, and sow fear in anyone who sympathizes with the protesters’ views.”
“Instead of ruling by decree and mass arrests, Thai authorities must reverse course. They must comply with their international obligations to respect the rights of anyone who simply wishes to peacefully speak their mind, on social media or in the streets,” Ming added.
Malaysian member of parliament and ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights chairperson Charles Santiago said protesters were “fully entitled to raise concerns about the current state of democracy in Thailand” and the “authorities should listen.”
“They might find that their suggestions could benefit the entire country, and not merely a select few, as Thailand’s politics has done for so long,” he added.
In February, small student protests began after the Constitutional Court dissolved the popular Future Forward Party. However, since July, after some restrictions to contain COVID-19 were lifted, they have progressed into large organized demonstrations of tens of thousands of people.
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of Progress Movement and now-defunct Future Forward Party said Thursday that “the government had no legitimacy or necessity to declare the state of emergency to break up the rally at night. It was a (dishonest) action… and against international principles.”
Protesters’ main demand is the resignation of the government, headed by coup-maker Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, and a new constitution, as the current one was drafted by the old military junta (2014-2019), in addition to reducing military influence in politics.
The most controversial demand is that for monarchical reform, a taboo subject until recently due to the great respect the institution commands and strict lese majeste laws, which punishes criticism of the crown with up to 15 years in prison.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who spends much of his time in Germany, arrived in the capital at the weekend to participate in religious ceremonies and the anniversary of the death of his father, the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died on Oct. 13, 2016. EFE-EPA