Thai authorities have gathered protest leaders under a sweeping emergency force announced on Thursday as a crackdown began on pro-democracy protests, which have also targeted the unbearable monarchy.
Three top activists were arrested among about a dozen arrested in a decree that also banned the gathering of more than four people after months of student-led protests against the government.
The day comes after protesters challenged a royal motorcycle – flashing the three-legged salute adopted from “The Hunger Games” books and movies – in an unprecedented act of defiance against the monarchy.
Following the announcement of the emergency measures early Thursday, riot police dispersed hundreds of protesters who had camped overnight outside the prime minister’s office in Bangkok.
Army spokesman Lt. Gen. Sandipong Tabiya underestimated the presence of military officers around some government buildings, writing on Facebook that he was there “to help enforce the law.”
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha was the army chief when the military came to power in a 2014 coup before winning disputed elections in March last year as a politician.
Student leader Parit Chiwarak was among those arrested, according to Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul – another prominent activist whose arrest was broadcast live on Facebook.
Anon Nuba, another senior figure in the protest movement, said he was airlifted by helicopter to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand “without my lawyer”.
“This is a violation of my rights and it is extremely dangerous for me,” he wrote on Facebook.
It was not immediately clear how the detainees accessed their social media accounts.
In addition to limiting gatherings to four people, the new emergency measures also allow the seizure of “electronic communications equipment, data and weapons suspected of causing the state of emergency,” a government spokesman said.
“These are orders banning gatherings of five or more people … and banning the distribution of news via electronic media that could affect national security,” the spokesman said in a statement.
– “National admiration” –
The order came after thousands of protesters gathered around the Bangkok Republic Monument on Wednesday before a scheduled ride on a royal motorcycle carrying King Maha Maha Vajiralongkorn and his family.
While police blocked most protesters away from the Royal Route, dozens were still present while passing motorcycle. Queen Sutda, sitting next to Prince Deepkanorn Rashmitoti, can be seen looking out of a limousine window as protesters greeted with three fingers.
Such apparent challenges to the monarchy are unknown in Thailand, where the influence of the royal family permeates every aspect of society.
Opposition leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit rejected the crackdown, calling on the government to “release all those arrested”.
“The government must quickly find a way to meet the demands of the protesters, otherwise the situation will disappear nationally,” he said.
Student leaders took to social media to urge supporters to take to the streets on Thursday, but there was no immediate indication the calls were valid.
“Come into force – moral support from home alone is not enough,” said the Free Youth Movement, which has staged mass demonstrations in recent months.
Police said they would set up checkpoints around the Ratchaprasong junction, the site of major repression in 2010, following Thailand’s top trending Twitter, urging people to gather there.
The king spends much of his time in Europe, but is in Thailand in recent days for an annual Buddhist ceremony and the anniversary of his father’s death.
Very rich, he is supported by the powerful army – which has long been positioned as a defender of the monarchy – as well as by the settlement elite.
– Turbulent story –
There have been many popular uprisings in the turbulent modern history of Thailand, which has suffered long periods of political unrest and more than a dozen military coups since 1932.
In recent protests, leaders have repeatedly said they only want the monarchy to adapt to modern times.
Their demands include the abolition of a strict royal law on defamation – which protects the king from criticism – and to keep the monarch out of politics.
Since the recent protests began, dozens of activists have been arrested, charged with repression and released on bail.
Government spokesman Anouha Murapahaisri said the prime minister had ordered police to charge “protesters who obstructed the royal motorcycle” on Wednesday.
“They have to face legal proceedings without exception.”
bur / fox