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Turbulent Thailand

Thailand's crackdown on protests turns violent: Five things to know

Brush with monarchy proves tipping point after summer of simmering protests

Pro-democracy protesters covers themselves from the water cannons with umbrellas while facing riot police during the demonstration on Oct. 16 in Bangkok.   © Getty Images

BANGKOK -- Thailand's pro-democracy movement entered a new phase when police used water cannons laced with blue dye and tear gas against crowds of mostly high school and college students on Friday.

The violence against peaceful demonstrators showed the determination by Thai authorities to quell the movement. From limiting social networking to shutting down transportation, the government appears willing to do anything to stop the protests.

But the clampdown has already begun to hurt Southeast Asia's second-largest economy, which was already reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic.

What drove the authorities to resort to violence?

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha declared a state of emergency Thursday morning after tens of thousands of protesters had camped overnight outside of the Government House. The emergency decree bars gatherings of more than four people. Several protest leaders were arrested shortly after the decree.

Youth protesters refused to back down. Large-scale rallies were held Thursday evening into Friday at different intersections in Bangkok's commercial and retail hub. A warning by police that they would use harsher methods to clear the streets Friday did not stop demonstrators.

Pro-democracy protesters gather during an anti-government demonstration in the Thai capital on Oct. 17 in Bangkok.   © Getty Images

Thousands of core protesters who were the target of police violence Friday appeared to be mostly high school and college students. The crowd was significantly younger than those who had gathered in Wednesday's overnight rally, which was planned well in advance and drew people from outside Bangkok.

The core protesters likely grew up with social media and spoke about taboo subjects -- including the monarchy -- online. Many had their vision of idealistic democracy shattered when the Future Forward party, founded by 40-something billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, was ordered to dissolve in February. The crackdown further challenges young Thais' beliefs that they live in a democracy.

How did tensions escalate so quickly?

Anti-government protesters hold up three fingers salute during the demonstration on Oct. 17 in Bangkok.    © AP

The pro-democracy movement caught momentum in mid-July, when human rights lawyer and activist leader Arnon Nampa began discussing reforms to monarchy, the nation's long-standing taboo, at an early protest. The protests have grown larger since then, with some attracting tens of thousands of people.

All of the rallies were held under an earlier emergency decree made in March that banned gatherings to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The move worked as the country kept its locally transmitted cases relatively low.

The earlier rallies could have been dispersed under the March decree but authorities allowed them to continue.

The tide quickly turned Wednesday when a royal motorcade carrying Queen Suthida and Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti briefly encountered a protest march heading for the Government House. Although the protesters remained peaceful, Prayuth labeled them as "not peaceful" and strengthened law enforcement.

This was the first close encounter between the pro-democracy protesters and the monarchy. King Maha Vajiralongkorn has spent most of his reign in Germany, but is currently paying a rare weekslong visit to the kingdom. Until Wednesday, no rally had been scheduled while the king was on Thai soil.

How is the king responding to the developments?

No direct response has been made or released from King Vajiralongkorn.

State television broadcast a rare video of the king speaking directly to a group of former communists at Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University in northeastern Thailand on Thursday.

"I think now you understand that the nation needs people who love the nation and the institution" of the monarchy, the king said in the video. "You can teach the new generation about the experiences you've had. It will be extremely useful."

The king's words could be interpreted as his willingness to seek reconciliation with the young generation.

King Vajiralongkorn is scheduled to preside over a commencement ceremony at Thammasat University on Oct. 30 and Oct. 31. The university's campuses have hosted past pro-democracy protests.

Will police violence finally discourage people from protesting?

Even a violent crackdown is unlikely to deter protesters. In fact, youth-led protesters returned to Bangkok's streets Saturday despite the authorities' determination to stop them. Pop-up rallies were held to avoid facing large numbers of police at one time. The movement also spread outside the capital, as protests were held in 16 other provinces.

Authorities did not hesitate to pay a huge economic price. Bangkok's skytrain and subway shuttered to stop people from attending rallies. Victory Monument roundabout and Asok intersection were sealed off out of fear the key traffic points would be used as assembly points.

In a move to discourage people from promoting rallies online, police warned that checking in and sharing images from a protest could result in an up to 40,000 baht ($1,280) fine and two years in jail. Yet, these measures have not stopped protests.

Are there winners or losers from the recent developments?

Many protest leaders were arrested. A few were released on bail, while others remain in custody. But they have gained support domestically and internationally. Student councils of major universities in Thailand released a joint declaration slamming the use of water cannon as immoral and unnecessary. Six opposition parties condemned excessive use of force by the government.

International organizations such as Human Rights Watch have criticized Thai government as well, while embassies in Bangkok have been relatively silent. Police defended the use of water cannons and tear gas as "international standards for crowd control." Water cannon and pepper spray were used to disperse protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. and other Western countries.

A German diplomat said the government was closely monitoring political developments in Thailand, according to Reuters. "Further violent clashes should be avoided. Peaceful expression must be possible," the diplomat said.

The current administration has the power to further limit people's rights of movement through the declaration. However, the economic toll caused by the crackdown could damage the government's approval rating. Prayuth had repeatedly asked protesters not to gather as rallies could cause a second COVID-19 wave and devastate the economy.

So far, the crackdown has caused transportation and malls to close, in further economic turmoil for a country that has lost massive amounts of tourism revenue. The same blame could get directed to the students leading the protest.

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