In hard hats and dressed in black, thousands of people gathered in Bangkok on Sunday using Hong Kong-inspired tactics to defy authorities and demand the resignation of the prime minister and the restriction of the royal family’s power.
The government is struggling to control an unprecedented student-led movement that began on university campuses and has since spread to streets across the country. Protesters have risked lengthy prison sentences for breaking the country̵
In a game of cat and mouse with police already arresting dozens of activists on charges such as riots, protest leaders asked supporters to wait on standby on Sunday, the fifth day of unrest. “Where are we going to meet today hmmm?” an important protest group posted on Facebook before later urging people to quickly gather at two of Bangkok’s busiest travel centers, Victory Monument and Asok.
Last week, the government announced a ban on gatherings of more than four people in the capital in an attempt to stop demonstrations. Since then, it has intensified legal threats and warned that people could face up to two years in prison if they post a selfie at a rally.
At least 80 people have been arrested, including key protest leaders, according to Thai human rights lawyers. Two people were charged under a rarely-used law banning “violence against the queen” after a group of people stabbed a royal motorcade with Queen Suthida last week. The charges lead to a possible death sentence if her life is believed to be threatened.
At the Victory Monument, where about 10,000 people were gathered, protesters waved pictures of detained activists shouting “liberate our friends” and calling police “slaves of the dictatorship”.
A police spokesman, Kissana Phathanacharoen, told a news conference: “We are committed to maintaining peace and order. To do so, we are bound by laws, international standards and human rights. ”
In scenes reminiscent of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations, crowds of protesters in Bangkok used hand gestures to convey messages and formed human chains to provide umbrellas to people at the front of the demonstration. Many protesters wore hard hats and goggles as a precaution after water cannons were fired to disperse the crowds, including schoolchildren, on Friday.
Supplies of face masks and bottled water purchased from donations collected online were distributed to protesters. Meanwhile, dog food at a train station that closed its doors in accordance with a government order aimed at stopping protesters was left with a note that reads “a loyal dog deserves a reward”.
Protests also took place in at least 19 other provinces on Sunday, with crowds in many places shining their telephone lights after dark. Solidarity protests were also held or planned in Europe, the United States, Canada and Taiwan. Hong Kong activists like Joshua Wong and Nathan Law sent messages of support.
Law described the Thai protesters as brave, saying students from both movements fought against undemocratic systems. “The structure of the problem is different, but at the end of the day we see many parallels between these two cases,” he said, pointing to the use of legal charges and water cannons against protesters and the closure of transport systems to try to counter rallies. “These little tricks have the same color.”
Ties between students from Hong Kong and Thailand have grown in recent months, with online activists uniting in opposition to authoritarianism using the hashtag milky alliance – a playful reference to their shared love of drink.
Thailand’s student-led protests began earlier this year when the courts banned a prominent opposition party popular with young people. Meetings halted due to the coronavirus pandemic, but have resumed in recent months, with young people saying they are tired of an establishment they accuse of stifling democracy and rejecting the country.
Protesters are calling for the replacement of the constitution, which was passed under military rule and which they say gave Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha an unfair advantage in last year’s election. Prayuth, who first came to power in the 2014 coup, denies this and has rejected calls to resign.
Students have also challenged the monarchy, an institution that has long been considered untouchable and which, according to the Constitution, is “enthroned in a position of honored worship”. Anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the king, queen, heir or regent” can face up to 15 years in prison.
Despite this, protesters have continued to demand reform, arguing that the monarchy – and the military, with which it is closely linked – must be held accountable if Thailand is to have a genuine democracy.
The king, who spends most of his time in Germany, succeeded his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 2016 and has since strengthened his authority. By inheritance, he took direct control of a palace fortune estimated at tens of thousands of billions of dollars and as well as some army units.
On Saturday, protesters painted a flag on the road with the words “Republic of Thailand”. The writing was painted overnight.
The Royal Palace has not commented on the protester’s demands.