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Turbulent Thailand

Thailand's young protesters keep up pace despite 'selfie rules'

Parliament president calls for cross-party talks over political impasse

 Pro-democracy protesters shine their mobile phone lights during an anti-government protest, in Bangkok, Thailand October 18, 2020.    © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thousands of protesters turned out Sunday at Victory Monument, a major roundabout in north-central Bangkok, for a fifth day of demonstrations in defiance of a "serious" state of emergency issued on Thursday, despite mass transit systems being halted at 2:30 p.m. for a second day by the authorities.

Free Youth, an activist group, had earlier used social media to call for fresh protests across the city at 3 p.m., demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his cabinet, constitutional changes drafted by representatives of the people, and reform of the monarchy under the constitution.

The People -- another group, previously called the People's Party 2020 -- announced Victory Monument in north-central Bangkok as Sunday's main assembly point and named the Asoke-Sukhumvit intersection as an additional venue.

Small and colorful flash mob demonstrations were staged under a gray, wet sky in other parts of the capital and in at least 19 places outside it. Protesters gathered in Rangsit north of the city, Hua Hin on the western seaboard of the Gulf of Thailand, Chonburi on the eastern seaboard, and Korat, the gateway to northeastern Thailand.

Some protesters held aloft pictures of student leaders and activists who have been arrested over the past week.

At 6 p.m., when the national anthem is always played across the country, protesters sang the words with hands raised in three-finger salutes that register peaceful opposition to repressive government.

Protesters were due to go home of their own volition at 8 p.m., by which time there had been no reports of serious incidents or clashes, and organizers finally called a halt to speeches at Victory Monument at 8:20 p.m.

Most protesters carried umbrellas against the wet weather, and some wore crash helmets and waterproof clothing in case riot police with water cannons and tear gas were deployed as they were on Friday against a peaceful crowd of about 4,000.

With heavy rain coming down, Friday's protesters were already close to dispersing on their own. The police action that night has been widely criticized as unwarranted and gratuitous by lawyers, opposition politicians, medical personnel and human rights groups.

A pro-democracy protester takes a selfie with a clown at a rally in Bangkok on Oct. 17.   © AP

Early Sunday evening, Chuan Leekpai, a former prime minister who is now president of the parliament, called for an informal cross-party consultation to discuss the political impasse. He said officials had been told to prepare for a special session, since parliament is in recess until Nov. 1.

Prayuth is concerned about the spreading protests, and "the government wants to talk to find a way out together," Reuters quoted spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri as saying.

On Friday, the government had been less conciliatory. It took the unusual step of announcing so-called "selfie rules," warning that posting selfies -- a nationally cherished pastime -- from the protests was tantamount to inciting others to join. As such, selfies could be construed as breaches of the state of emergency regulations and be punishable by up to two years in prison.

The emergency decree came into effect on Thursday, banning gatherings of more than four people, along with actions that could provoke conflict, and distribution of letters and publications -- including electronic data -- that may stir fear or could be deemed "fake news." Violators face a maximum penalty of two years in jail and a 40,000 baht, or $1,282, fine.

The government is increasingly squeezing online activity, a key driver of the youth movement. On Sunday afternoon, Free Youth tweeted that the Digital Ministry is seeking to shut down the group's Facebook page as well as that of Thammasat University student protesters.

Media censorship is also on the rise. Buddhipongse Punnakanta, the digital economy and society minister, said on Thursday that the ministry will work closely with the Office of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, major telecom companies and internet companies to closely monitor online posts, including anything that foments unrest. The selfie rule appears to fall under this oversight.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand issued a statement on Sunday night expressing concern about the safety of journalists covering the protests and the vague terms of the emergency decree. "The arrest, albeit temporary, of a Thai journalist on Friday night highlights the new risks for media in covering events," the statement read.

Apart from Bangkok, protesters are expected to stage sporadic rallies, including at major universities across the nation, in the days ahead, starting at around 4 p.m.

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