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Uprising police in Bangkok used water cannons and accused crowds to disperse thousands of protesters in the Thai capital, a day after the government officially banned street meetings demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a new constitution and reform of the country’s monarchy.
Most students defied a government ban on rallies in the capital on Friday, imposed a day earlier, after protesters stopped and mocked a motorcade transporting King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida. It was an unprecedented display of discontent for the royal couple in a country where people learned to honor the monarchy and where harsh sanctions are handed out to anyone who openly criticizes the castle.
The mass protests of recent days – some attracting crowds estimated at tens of thousands of people – and the government breakdown they have unleashed represent a major escalation in the student-led movement pushing back towards what many see as the all-ii name authoritarian ruler of Thailand.
The protests started in March but erupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic only to revive and swell in recent days.
Much of the anger is directed at the country’s prime minister, a former army general who seized power from an elected government in 2014. The military junta led by Prayuth then rewrote the country’s constitution and gave the military the power to appoint the 250-member Senate. Prayuth retained his position as prime minister in controversial elections last year.
The protesters want a new constitution – one that the military has no hand in creating. They also want curbs on the power of the palace. The king, who spends much of his time in Germany, controls enormous wealth at a time when ordinary Thais are suffering in the midst of a collapse in tourism due to coronavirus.
Friday was the second day that, despite the government’s declaration of emergency powers. Protesters gathered at central Bangkok’s Pathumwan junction. In a scene reminiscent of Hong Kong’s democratic demonstrations earlier this year, protesters dressed in rain spray and wore umbrellas in an attempt to protect themselves from water jets fired by police cars.
Many protesters shouted “Come out, come out” against the police, the same slogan they have raised to urge the prime minister to resign. They also shouted “Let go of our friends” – a reference to the more than 40 people who have reportedly been arrested in recent days.
“The dictatorial government is using violence to disperse the movement of the people,” Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, one of the protest leaders, told Reuters.
Prayuth said at a news conference Friday that “I will not stop” and told reporters that the emergency measures imposed early Thursday would remain in effect for 30 days.
The king, who has not made any direct statement about the protests, said in comments broadcast on television that Thailand “needs people who love the country and love the monarchy,” Reuters reports.
An online media journalist Prachatai was arrested while streaming his report live at the protest, according to the independent outlet. It said the reporter “may be charged with violating the emergency decree banning publication, broadcasting of information that threatens stability.”
Some of the water sprayed on the crowd was stained blue, apparently to “mark” the participants for later arrest. Protesters said the water also contained skin and eye irritants, and several social media posts showed protesters trying to rinse their eyes and faces with bottled water.
The chemicals in the water were not dangerous, a police spokesman insisted at a press conference. He said: “The police complied with international standards to disperse the demonstration.”
Police regained control of the streets around 1 p.m. 20:30 local time, according to the Bangkok Post, after protest leaders reportedly asked the crowd to go home and return for another mass rally on Saturday.
Police spokesman Yingyot Thepchamnong warned protesters that if they failed to heed warnings against “illegal acts”, they would be severely treated.
“After this, there will be intensive measures to enforce the law,” he said.