Thailand Curtails Mass Transit as Protesters Defy Gathering Ban

Authorities in Thailand shut down almost all mass rail transit in the capital of Bangkok as thousands of antigovernment protesters took to the streets, defying a ban on large public gatherings for the third consecutive day.

A mass demonstration initially planned for a single location on Saturday was rerouted to the sites of three transit stations throughout the city center, with protesters chanting “Prayuth get out,” a reference to the prime minister, and flashing a three-finger gesture that has become a symbol of resistance in the country.

People exchange a three-finger salute Saturday in Bangkok.



Photo:

soe zeya tun/Reuters

Protests against the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ochathat began earlier this year gained momentum this week as authorities escalated efforts to put an end to the movement. The government issued an emergency decree Thursday banning gatherings of more than five people.

More than 12,000 people joined a demonstration in defiance of the order later that day, according to police estimates, and organizers called for continued protests. They have largely rallied behind three core demands: a dissolution of the government, a new constitution and an end to the harassment of government critics.

Mr. Prayuth, a former army chief, led a coup in 2014 and presided over a junta government for nearly five years before calling elections last year that made him an elected leader. The polls were marred by allegations from opposition leaders and pro-democracy activists that the electoral process favored the military-backed party.

Some activists have gone beyond the three demands, breaking a longstanding taboo by openly criticizing the nation’s powerful monarchy. The emergency decree issued on Thursday cited an incident involving the royal family after some protesters chanted slogans as a motorcade transporting the queen passed.

Thailand has one of the world’s strictest lèse-majesté laws, carrying punishments of up to 15 years in prison for perceived insults to the royal family. While authorities have abstained from wielding the law against these demonstrators, two activists were recently charged under another clause alleging they intended to harm the queen.

Mr. Prayuth told reporters on Friday that he had no intention to resign. The palace hasn’t commented on the protests.

On Friday, police deployed water cannons for the first time to disperse the crowds, deepening public anger. In scenes reminiscent of antigovernment protests in Hong Kong, demonstrators arrayed in front of riot police huddled behind a wall of open umbrellas to shield themselves from the spray of water laced with blue pigment, a tactic sometimes used by police to identify attendees.

Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong, a key figure in the protests against Chinese influence in the territory, shared a photo on Twitter early Saturday of himself flashing the three-finger salute with the hashtags “#StandWithThailand” and “#MilkTeaAlliance,” a reference to an online coalition of Asian pro-democracy activists.

Several thousand people joined the protest on Saturday afternoon at Bangkok’s Lat Phrao intersection, where some handed out protective helmets and goggles to others streaming in. The protesters were mostly young, some of them teenagers, many wearing raincoats and eye protection in anticipation of a confrontation with police. Some protesters said the liquid sprayed from water cannons the previous day made their eyes burn.

“Instead of using water cannons to crack down on us, the government should listen to what we have to say,” said Shim Muangthong, 22, a university student. “We’re the next generation, we want space to express our opinions freely. We will not use violence, we come here with bare hands, we just want them to hear what we’re saying.”

Protesters demonstrate Saturday in defiance of a government ban on large gatherings in Bangkok.



Photo:

diego azubel/Shutterstock

Authorities are struggling to contain the demonstrations as the protesters become increasingly bold. In what human rights groups have referred to as a crackdown, more than 50 activists were arrested this week, including several prominent leaders. One of the two men charged with intent to harm the queen, student activist Bunkueanun Paothong, was released on bail.

Antigovernment protests are common in Thailand, but were characterized for many years by clashes between two politically-aligned groups. The current movement is different, analysts say, led by a new generation of pro-democracy activists less beholden to tradition and more connected to the world beyond their borders.

“What makes these protests different is that the powers that be are up against a generation that simply won’t take it anymore,” said Michael Montesano, coordinator of the Thailand studies program at Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “The reason they won’t take it anymore is that they have access to the internet, and they have a sense of how things work in other parts of the world.”

Write to Feliz Solomon at [email protected] and Wilawan Watcharasakwet at [email protected]

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