'I want freedom': Thais protest despite government's ban on gatherings

'I want freedom': Thais protest despite government's ban on gatherings

Bangkok protest on Oct 15 (1)
Protesters take part in a demonstration at a road intersection in Bangkok on Oct 15, 2020, after Thailand issued an emergency decree that banned five or more people gathering. (Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)

BANGKOK: From shops, offices and schools they spilt onto a Bangkok street in their tens of thousands, voicing shock and anger and defiance.

Thailand's government had announced emergency measures to ban gatherings of five or more people to try to end three months of protests. The response was one of the biggest demonstrations so far, in the heart of the capital.

About 10,000 Thai protesters gathered on Thursday (Oct 15), chanting "Prayut get out!" and "Free our friends!" as they confronted police at Ratchaprasong, a busy junction in central Bangkok.

"You push us into the corner like a dog," one of the few prominent activist leaders not in custody, Panupong "Mike" Jadnok, told the crowd.

"And with our backs against the wall, we'll bite back with nothing to lose," he said.

Bangkok protest on Oct 15
Thailand protesters hold up flashlights on phones during a demonstration in Bangkok on Oct 15, 2020, after Thailand issued an emergency decree stopping gatherings. (Photo: Jack Taylor/AFP)

As night fell, protesters waved their lit-up mobile phones in the air.

Thousands sat on plastic sheets on the road snacking on street food while scores more watched from overhead walkways. Many said they would return on Friday evening.

A man reacts during anti-government protests in Bangkok
A man reacts during anti-government protests in Bangkok, Thailand, on Oct 15, 2020.. (Photo: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun)

"I'm not afraid. Emergency or not, I have no freedom," said 26-year-old illustrator Thanatpohn Dejkunchorn, who left work early to attend the protest with friends. "I want freedom to exist in this country. I want it to be free from this vicious cycle."

Protests have built since mid-July in the biggest challenge in years to the political establishment - seeking the removal of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former military leader, and to curb the powers of King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

"We have to create understanding with the protesters," government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri told Reuters, complaining that protest leaders were not giving protesters "complete information".

Police said they would arrest all protesters, though they did not explain how they would charge tens of thousands of people.

The Royal Palace has declined to comment on the protesters or their demands.

People gesture at a man lying on the ground during anti-government protests in Bangkok
People gesture at a man lying on the ground during anti-government protests in Bangkok, Thailand on Oct 15, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun)

Until Wednesday, the government had largely allowed demonstrations to happen, while making no sign of meeting protesters' demands.

But that changed after an incident in which protesters jeered Queen Suthida's motorcade as she and the king were paying a rare visit from Europe, where they spend most of their time.

The government cited the risks to national security and the economy from protests, as well as the danger of spreading coronavirus, as reasons for imposing emergency measures.

The government then launched a crackdown early on Thursday, sweeping away a camp set up outside Prayut's office and arresting three protest leaders - among around 40 arrests in the past week.

Later, student leaders took to social media to urge supporters to take to the streets.

Among those who turned out were high school students, who covered the ID tags on their uniforms with duct tape.

"EXCESSIVE AND UNNECESSARY POWER"

"It's obvious that the state wants to exercise excessive and unnecessary power on people," said 22-year-old student Pattanun Arunpreechawat, who joined Thursday's protest after studies.

People are seen during anti-government protests in Bangkok
People are seen during anti-government protests in Bangkok, Thailand October 15, 2020.. (Photo: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun)

"I want democracy for my country," said Katherine, a 13-year-old attending her first protest. "I want to be a part of big change."

Police estimated 10,000 people attended the rally. Demonstrators began to disperse at 10pm local time.

"All of these people who assembled today - their actions are against the law," deputy police spokesman Colonel Kissana Phathanacharoen told AFP.

He said it was up to the authorities on who to pursue legal action.

A protester makes a white ribbon as a symbol of peace in front of a police officer
A protester makes a white ribbon as a symbol of peace in front of a police officer during anti-government protests in Bangkok, Thailand, on Oct 15, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun)

Protesters want to oust Prayut, who first took power in a 2014 coup, saying he engineered election rules last year to keep his position - an accusation he denies. Breaking a longstanding taboo, protesters have also challenged the monarchy - saying it has helped entrench decades of military influence.

They gathered in the shadow of upmarket shopping malls and shiny tower blocks that are home to multinationals and other businesses in Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy.

But the Ratchaprasong Intersection also has a historic resonance for protesters. In 2010, it was the scene of bloodshed as security forces cracked down on Red Shirts who battled pro-establishment Yellow Shirts during a decade of turmoil.

"I'm not afraid. I've been chased by guns," said beef noodle seller Thawat Kijkunasatien, 57, a veteran of the bloody crackdown a decade ago and another in 1992.

"Wherever the kids go, I go," he said at the protest while sipping a can of beer.

One characteristic of the latest Thai protests has been the extent to which they are led by students and other young people. Most protest leaders are in their 20s, but an even younger generation is following.

From giving the three-finger salute of protest when the national anthem plays at school to tying white ribbons in their hair and on school bags as symbols of protest, high school students have rallied to the campaign.

People show the three-finger salute
People show the three-finger salute as they protest against the government in Bangkok, Thailand, on  Oct 15, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun)

Many left school to join Thursday's protest - among them 18-year-old Tan, who came along after finishing school exams. He declined to give his full name for fear of reprisals.

"I make sure I’m prepared for exams before I go to protests. I have to give importance to both things," he said. "We can’t let it go on like this, or it will never end."

Source: Reuters/AFP/ec

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