A strict new state of emergency in Bangkok has been declared by the Thai government after demonstrators obstructed a royal motorcade.
Queen Suthida had been travelling in a convoy on the streets of the capital after attending a Buddhist ceremony at the Grand Palace when the motorcade was heckled on Wednesday.
Protesters were seen raising their hands with a three-finger salute, which has become a symbol of resistance in the country. It was taken from the Hollywood film The Hunger Games and was banned by the military junta who took power in a coup in 2014.
Thailand‘s lese-majeste law states that “whoever defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent shall be punished with imprisonment of three to 15 years”.
The text of the emergency declaration said it was needed because “certain groups of perpetrators intended to instigate an untoward incident and movement in the Bangkok area by way of various methods and via different channels, including causing obstruction to the royal motorcade”.
Following the declaration, riot police moved in to disperse a group of protesters who had camped out in front of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s office, calling for his resignation.
The student-led protest movement also wants reform to the monarchy and a new constitution.
The protest, which was held on the 47th anniversary of the 1973 uprising against military dictatorship, had been met by monarchist counter-protesters who had gathered to support the government and welcome the royal motorcade.
Thai police say they have arrested 22 protesters including leaders of the protest movement, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, and human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa.
The Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group has said that leading activist Panupong Jadnok has been detained.
A Facebook livestream showing police reading out charges to leading student protester Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul has been viewed more than 500,000 times. She was later seen being carried into a police car.
Opposition politician and leader of the Future Forward Party, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, said the state of emergency and arrest of protesters “is pushing Thailand to a breaking point”, adding “the government must release the protesters and end the emergency decree”.
Human rights organisation Amnesty International has criticised the new state of emergency and called for the government to “engage in constructive dialogue with the protesters”.
Government spokesman Anucha Buraphachaisri said tougher restrictions had been put in place for people who try to get in the way of the monarchy’s motorcade or insult them.
As part of the new state of emergency, checkpoints will be installed around the city for security purposes.
Despite the measures, protest organisers gathered in Bangkok’s shopping district on Thursday afternoon with thousands of others.
They were monitored by police as they chanted “Free our friends”, in reference to the arrested leaders.
NGO worker Aitarnik Chitwiset said: “I want to fight for my future. I want to fight for my friends. I want to fight for my democracy. My country must be democracy.”
Michael Montesano, at the Iseas-Yusof Isak Institute in Singapore, said: “What seemed to be a low-boil stalemate that the Prayuth government was managing with reasonable success has now, following the incident involving the procession of the queen’s motorcade down a street in which an active protest was under way and the arrests of protest leaders, become a full-blown crisis.
“Unlike 48 hours ago, the country is in dangerous territory now.”
Students initially launched the protest movement in March, but it was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although Thailand remains under a national state of emergency in response to coronavirus, the movement gathered pace in July when case numbers had dropped.
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