Riot police have used water cannon to disperse thousands of protesters, including school students, gathered in Bangkok as Thai authorities intensified a crackdown on young people calling for reform of the monarchy.
Blasts of blue-coloured water were fired at demonstrators who had assembled for a second day in defiance of “severe” emergency measures introduced this week in response to an unprecedented pro-democracy movement that has swept across Thailand over recent months.
The protesters have shocked many by calling for reforms to the country’s hugely wealthy and powerful monarchy – an institution protected by a harsh defamation law, and that has long been considered untouchable. The movement is led by university and school students, but has attracted support from older generations.
As police moved forwards, teenagers wearing school uniforms ran to safety, while some protesters attempted to shield themselves under umbrellas. One woman could be heard screaming at police: “How can you do this?” Protesters said the water contained chemical irritants.
Police had blocked roads in an attempt to stop the protests, but student leaders switched their assembly point at the last minute. Earlier in the afternoon, services from key train stations were halted and police raided the offices of the Progressive Movement, a group formed by banned politicians from the disbanded opposition party Future Forward.
Protesters have breached longstanding taboos to call for the country’s harsh lese-majesty law to be scrapped, and for the monarchy to be accountable to the people. They say the royal family’s budget should be cut, and that it should not interfere in politics.
Shortly after police used water cannon to break up protests, Royal News, a segment played nightly on Thai TV, showed King Maha Vajiralongkorn in Nakhon Phanom visiting former communists, who knelt before him. The king has been criticised for spending most of his time in Germany, but is currently in Thailand.
“The country needs people who love the country and love the monarchy,” he said, in pre-recorded comments. “Any experience that you’ve had, and all the work that you’d done, can be put to good use for the nation. You can teach the new generation about your experience, which will be very useful.”
The government introduced what it called “severe” emergency measures in Bangkok overnight on Wednesday to halt protests, banning gatherings of five or more people, and the publication of news or online information that “could create fear” or “affect national security”. The powers have been condemned by human rights groups as an attempt to stifle dissent.
More than 40 people have been arrested for involvement in the protests, including key student leaders, who face charges such as sedition, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years. Arrest warrants were also issued for two protesters accused of attempted violence against the queen after her motorcade was heckled by protesters on Wednesday. The charges carry a possible death sentence if her life is thought to have been threatened.
Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, one of the few student leaders who had avoided jail, was arrested on Friday after calling for support from the international community.
The emergency measures allow police to detain protesters without charge for up to 30 days, with no access to lawyers or family.
Protests first began in February, prompted by a court decision to ban Future Forward, but rallies were halted by coronavirus measures. Under lockdown, anger grew, fuelled by inequality – brought into sharp focus by the pandemic – and by the abduction of the dissident Wanchalearm Satsaksit, the ninth pro-democracy activist to disappear in recent years.
Clément Voule, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of association and peaceful assembly, expressed concern over the crackdown. “The ‘severe state of emergency’ declared and the arrests in Bangkok are stifling freedom of assembly. The government needs to allow protesters to exercise their rights and seek dialogue, not suppress them,” he said.
In a video posted on Twitter, the university student Bunkueanun Paothong, 21, one of those accused of violence towards the queen, became tearful as he stated his innocence in front of a police station. “While I still breathe I will be hoping that my freedom will be returned to myself and that my innocence will be proven.”
Social media footage from Wednesday, showed protesters shouting “our taxes”, and giving a three-finger salute as the queen’s limousine passed. The salute is used widely by the pro-democracy movement to show opposition to the establishment. Police pushed protesters away from the queen’s car. Usually, when a royal motorcade passes, people are expected to sit on the floor as a sign of respect.
James Buchanan, a visiting lecturer at Mahidol University International College, where Bunkueanun, who also uses the name Francis, studies international relations, expressed concern over the charges, which he said were highly unusual.
“Francis is an intelligent young man with a promising future and was only exercising his right to protest, which is protected by both the Thai constitution and international norms,” he said.
The pro-democracy movement has also targeted the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who first took power in the 2014 coup, calling for his resignation and a new constitution, which some analysts said skewed last year’s elections in Prayuth’s favour. Protesters have argued that reforms are needed in order for Thailand to have a true democracy, and to escape a cycle of street protests and coups that have dominated the country’s politics.
Prayuth has refused to resign, and on Friday instructed people not to gather for protests. “Just wait and see ... If you do wrong, we will use the law,” he said.