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Turbulent Thailand

Thailand protesters defy assembly ban with call for Friday rally

Leader asks 5,000 attendees to be mainstays of future demonstrations

Over 5,000 young protesters flashing three-finger salutes defied an assembly ban at a key intersection in the Thai capital on Thursday night before dispersing peacefully.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Organizers of a rally that attracted at least 5,000 mostly young Thai protesters here asked them to disperse Thursday night -- a move possibly intended to avoid arrests following an overnight stay -- but to return at 5 p.m. on Friday.

Parit Chiwarak, better known as Penguin and one of the recently arrested leaders, sent a message urging people not to stay late so that they can be mainstays for future protests.

Penguin's call for a temporary retreat comes after demonstrators defied a ban on assembly imposed before dawn on Thursday, when Thailand's prime minister declared a state of emergency. Protesters had surrounded the Government House to demand political reforms.

As umbrellas opened against light rain Thursday night, the crowd began clearing up rubbish -- something they have done at other large protests in Bangkok in recent weeks.

The youthful organizers had retained peaceful control of the Ratchaprasong intersection in the heart of one of the Thai capital's main business and retail districts since late afternoon.

Successive impassioned speeches were given from a stage on the back of a truck equipped with a powerful public address system, and rewarded with cheers and singing.

Panupong Jadnok, a 24-old activist and one of the few leaders not to have been arrested overnight, appealed for public support.

"I ask all of you who are still fighting for democracy to come and join us tonight," he said.

"Free our friends," the crowd chanted, demanding the release of 28 leaders arrested since dawn, mostly outside Government House after an overnight protest.

"We have been suppressed for so long -- we want an equal society," Chutikan Tansutanyaluck, 26, told Nikkei Asia. "Success might not come today, but it is a starting point."

"Thai politics right now is not the real thing," said a 17-year-old nicknamed Mind.

Security officials blocked off a stretch of walkway beneath the SkyTrain more than 40 minutes ahead of the scheduled start of the protest at 4 p.m. Nearby pedestrian overpasses were left open, however.

At about 7 p.m. protesters apparently forced open the closed section of the long walkway that connects Chidlom and Siam SkyTrain stations and occupied the area above the stage. Organizers asked people to come down to ensure third parties did not try to exploit the situation.

Many young people in t-shirts with small backpacks arrived from all directions, and were able to pass unhindered through top-end shopping malls -- except the massive CentralWorld, part of which was torched in a major riot in 2010. Most shop staff in the vicinity were sent home early at 6 p.m.

In small lanes off Rajadamri Road, well-equipped riot police were being held in reserve and out of sight.

Rajadamri was one of the areas witness to serious political unrest in the capital in 2010 that left over 90 dead and scores injured.

Pro-democracy demonstrators gather outside Bangkok's Government House on the night of Oct. 14.   © Reuters

Although Thailand has been under emergency rule since March, the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha declared a "serious emergency situation" in Bangkok early today. Thousands of demonstrators who had surrounded Government House were cleared away and their leaders arrested in a major clampdown following months of youth-led protests.

The emergency decree, which bans gatherings of more than four people, took effect at 4 a.m. and comes just as the country is attempting to revive its coronavirus-hit economy. Some analysts worry that further turmoil will undermine that recovery.

"It is very important to have urgent measures to fix this and halt this conduct effectively so the law is respected and the public is in order," said the government's announcement, published under the name of the prime minister.

The protest movement has three main demands: the resignation of Prayuth and his cabinet, constitutional changes drafted by representatives of the people, and reform of the monarchy under the constitution -- but not its abolition.

Key protest leaders, including human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa and student activist Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak, were arrested at around 4:30 a.m. for alleged sedition. After the arrests, some of the protesters who had gathered around Government House began to disperse on their own.

Before his detention, Arnon had called for the crowd to move the rally to Ratchaprasong intersection in the commercial heart of Bangkok by 4 p.m. on Thursday.

Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, another protest leader detained today, posted a video clip before being taken into custody, encouraging people to continue with the demonstration as planned.

The protesters had originally gathered on Wednesday at Democracy Monument, near the administrative heart of Bangkok. The crowd then started marching toward Government House, reaching it in the early evening.

A royal motorcade carrying Queen Suthida at one point encountered marching demonstrators, who flashed three-finger salutes -- a symbol of the movement drawn from "The Hunger Games" franchise of books and films. She smiled and waved back.

Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn, left, and Queen Suthida in a motorcade driving toward the Grand Palace in Bangkok.   © Reuters

Another motorcade carrying the king passed without incident, but authorities took the interruption of the queen's progress as a serious offense, prompting the clampdown. "There was conduct that affected the royal motorcade, and there was reason to believe there was violent conduct that affected state security, safety in life or assets of the people and state," a preliminary translation of the government's statement read.

Prayuth's statement also cited concerns about the economy, saying the protest movement "affects the control of the COVID-19, which directly affects the vulnerable economy of the nation."

But Apichat Sathitniramai, an associate professor at Thammasat University, said the scene with the royal motorcade was really the sole factor in the government's decision.

Apichat added that he thinks the students and other demonstrators will not back down. "They will try many methods to challenge the declaration, in order to show the international community that this government is not capable of governing the country anymore," he said.

Thailand has been under a state of emergency since March to control COVID-19 -- and has largely succeeded at doing so. The country has recorded a modest 3,652 cases, with 59 deaths, though the near-stoppage of global travel has hammered the tourism-reliant economy. Gross domestic product slumped 12.2% on the year in the second quarter.

Although the coronavirus restrictions already barred large gatherings, the authorities until now opted not to impose strict controls on the youth-led demonstrations that had gained steam since July.

Thursday's emergency declaration also bars the "publication of news, other media and electronic information that contains messages that could create fear or intentionally distort information, creating misunderstanding that will affect national security or peace and order."

Additional reporting by Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat.

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