Thousands of mostly young Thais were back on the streets of Bangkok on Sunday for a fifth day of protests demanding major political changes, with demonstrations also taking place in several other countries around the country.
The demonstrators, who are protesting despite a state of emergency forbidding them to do so, received a new warning from the police that they are breaking the law. On Saturday, however, few people were arrested as peaceful rallies were held at several points around Bangkok, the capital, with several thousand attending.
A statement issued Sunday evening by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s office acknowledged freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, but insisted that people obey the law. He said Prayuth was ready to listen to the frustrations of the Thai people, but that he also ordered the authorities to be vigilant about unscrupulous groups who might want to incite violence for their own political gain.
The protest movement which is demanding the resignation of the prime minister, a more democratic constitution and a reformed monarchy began in March at universities around the country. After a calm due to the coronavirus crisis, it was revived in late July, creating strength, especially in Bangkok.
On Sunday, rallies were called in at least a dozen provinces, including Chiang Mai, a popular tourist destination in northern Thailand. Social media spread the word, though the government said it would seek legal action against accounts posting details of planned protests.
The rallies in Bangkok again drew large crowds, perhaps up to 10,000 in all, despite official warnings and constant rain. Organizers said the protests officially ended at 8pm local time, though many people were delayed.
“If we are together we have a better chance of winning, but if we let people fight alone there will be less chance of winning,” said a 24-year-old protester who called herself Pear at a rally in the busy Asoke intersection, located in the commercial heart of the capital. “So we are here to express ourselves, what we want and what we expect for the future.”
The largest rally in Bangkok was held at the Victory Monument, a popular meeting point that anchors a traffic lane on a main road. The atmosphere there was shocked by occasional rumors that police had been spotted nearby.
Crowds in both countries chanted slogans throughout the events, starting with “Free our friends!” referring to protest leaders arrested for rude insults directed at the prime minister and others.
People at the Asoke gathering reluctantly sang an encouraging song to serve the people. It is likely that many people were unfamiliar with the words because the song was famous during a 1973 student uprising in Thailand that toppled a military dictatorship.
Authorities previously tried in vain to keep people from gathering by selectively closing stations on the elevated and underground mass transit lines of Bangkok. On Saturday, after protest organizers asked followers to meet at the city’s Skytrain stations, authorities ordered all stations closed, to no avail.
State of emergency declared in the capital
The current cycle of confrontations began before dawn Thursday, when police broke up an overnight rally outside the Government House, which awaits Prayuth’s offices. It led him to declare a 30-day state of emergency for Bangkok, banning meetings of more than five people and allowing the government additional powers to maintain peace.
Protesters ignored the emergency decree and gathered Thursday evening in large numbers at a large intersection in Bangkok’s central shopping district, overcoming half-hearted resistance from thin police lines.
A rally Friday night at a nearby intersection was crushed by a large riot police force backed by water cannons mounted on the truck. The use of force was condemned by rights organizations.
PHOTOS | Thai police open fire on anti-government protesters:
Police made no attempt to disrupt Saturday’s rallies, which ended peacefully.
“The situation is very dynamic at the moment,” deputy police spokeswoman Kissana Phatanacharoen told a news conference Sunday morning.
“There is no formula for what we do or what we do not do.”
He said if people do not obey the law, the police will be forced to enforce it.
Protesters accuse Prayuth, who as army commander led a coup in 2014 that toppled an elected government, unjustly returned to power in last year’s general election because laws were changed to favor a pro-military party . Protesters say a constitution promulgated under military rule and passed in a referendum in which the campaign against it was illegal is undemocratic.
The protest movement became particularly controversial when it approved monarchy reform as a demand. Protesters want it to operate within the controls and balances of democracy.
The monarchy has long been considered sacred in Thailand and is protected by a law that makes defamation of the royal institution punishable by three to 15 years in prison. This issue has angered the conservative establishment of Thailand, especially the military, which considers the defense of the monarchy as one of its main tasks.
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