BANGKOK -- Thai authorities declared a "serious emergency situation" in Bangkok early on Thursday and cleared thousands of demonstrators who had surrounded the seat of the government, in a clampdown after 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 rev up its coronavirus-hit economy. Some analysts worry that further turmoil could 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 Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
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 led by King Maha Vajiralongkorn 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. on allegations of 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, which is the commercial heart of Bangkok, by 4 p.m. on Thursday. Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, another protest leader who has also been detained, posted a video clip before being taken into custody, encouraging people to continue with the demonstration as planned.
This new rally, if it occurs, would likely draw pushback from law enforcement.
Bangkok's deputy police chief, Piya Tawichai, announced that about 2,000 officers would be dispatched to Ratchaprasong, starting around noon. The public has been advised to avoid the area from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Terdsak Taweethiratham, senior executive vice president of Asia Plus Securities, stressed to Nikkei Asia that the already weak and fragile economy needs more stimulus from the government to recover from the impact of COVID-19. He warned that any protests or political instability that disrupt such efforts would create big problems for Thailand in the long run. These "concerns continue to weigh on the Thai economy," he said.
As of noon on Thursday, Bangkok appeared to be going about its business. Despite the police request for citizens to stay away from Ratchaprasong, no major malls in the area had announced plans to close early. Still, the warning could reduce the flow of shoppers later in the day.
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.
The king's motorcade passed without incident, but the authorities took the interruption 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.