BANGKOK – Thousands of mainly young Thais were back on the streets of Bangkok on Sunday for a fifth straight day of protests demanding sweeping political change, with demonstrations also taking place at several other locations around the country.
The demonstrators, who are protesting despite a state of emergency banning them from doing so, received a new warning from police that they are violating the law. On Saturday, however, few people had been arrested as peaceful rallies were held at several points around Bangkok, the capital, with several thousand taking part.
A statement issued Sunday night by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's office acknowledged the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, but insisted that people obey the law. It said Prayuth was ready to listen to the frustrations of Thai people, but that he also ordered the authorities to be vigilant for unscrupulous groups that might want to instigate violence for their own political benefit.
The protest movement — which is calling for the prime minister's resignation, a more democratic constitution and a reformed monarchy — began in March at universities around the country. After a lull due to the coronavirus crisis, it was revived in late July, building up strength, particularly in Bangkok.
On Sunday, rallies were called in at least a dozen provinces, including Chiang Mai, a popular tourist destination in northern Thailand. Social media spread the word, though the government said it would seek legal action against accounts posting details of planned protests.
The rallies in Bangkok again drew large crowds, perhaps as many as 10,000 in all, despite the official warnings and intermittent rain. Organizers declared the protests officially over at 8 p.m., though many people lingered.
“If we are together we have a better chance to win, but if we let people fight alone there will be less chance to win," a 24-year-old protester who called herself Pear said at a rally at the busy Asoke intersection, located in the commercial heart of the capital. “So we are here to express ourselves, what we are wanting and what we are expecting for the future as well."
The larger rally in Bangkok was held at Victory Monument, a popular meeting point that anchors a traffic circle on a main thoroughfare. The atmosphere there was jumpy due to occasional rumors that police had been spotted nearby.
The crowds at both venues shouted slogans throughout the events, ranging from “Free our friends!” — referring to arrested protest leaders — to rude insults directed at the prime minister and others.
People at the Asoke gathering hesitantly sang a song with exhortations to serve the people. It is likely many were unfamiliar with the words, because the song was popular during a 1973 student uprising in Thailand that toppled a military dictatorship.
The authorities earlier tried in vain to keep people from gathering by selectively shutting down stations on Bangkok’s elevated and underground mass transit lines. On Saturday, after protest organizers had urged followers to meet at the city’s Skytrain stations, the authorities ordered all stations to be closed, to little avail.
The current cycle of confrontations began before dawn Thursday, when police broke up an overnight rally outside Government House, which hosts the offices of Prime Minister Prayuth. It led him to declare a 30-day state of emergency for Bangkok, banning gatherings of more than five people and allowing the government extra powers to keep the peace.
Protesters ignored the emergency decree and gathered Thursday night in large numbers at a major intersection in Bangkok’s central shopping district, overcoming half-hearted resistance by thin lines of police.
A Friday night rally at a nearby intersection was crushed by a large force of riot police backed by truck-mounted water cannons. The use of force was condemned by rights organizations.
Police made no efforts to break up Saturday’s gatherings, which ended peacefully.
“The situation is very dynamic at the moment," police deputy spokesperson Kissana Phatanacharoen said at a Sunday morning news conference. “There is no formula as to what we do or what we don't do.”
He said that if people failed to obey the law, police would be compelled to enforce it.
The protesters charge that Prayuth, who as army commander led a 2014 coup that toppled an elected government, was returned to power unfairly in last year’s general election because laws had been changed to favor a pro-military party. The protesters say a constitution promulgated under military rule and passed in a referendum in which campaigning against it was illegal is undemocratic.
The protest movement became particularly controversial when it adopted reform of the monarchy as a demand. The protesters want it to act within the checks and balances of democracy.
The monarchy has long been considered sacrosanct in Thailand, and is protected by a law that makes defaming the royal institution punishable by a prison term of three to 15 years. The issue has angered Thailand’s conservative establishment, especially the army, which considers protecting the monarchy to be one of its main duties.