Thai authorities have closed most of the mass rail transit in Bangkok’s capital as thousands of antigovernment protesters took to the streets, protesting the ban on large-scale public gatherings for the third consecutive day.
A massive demonstration originally planned for a single location on Saturday was rerouted to the sites of three transit stations across the city center, with protesters shouting “Prayuth exit,” a reference to the prime minister, and flashing a three-finger gesture becomes a symbol of resistance in the country.
Protests against the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha that started earlier this year gained strength this week as authorities stepped up efforts to end the movement. The government issued an emergency decree Thursday banning gatherings of more than five people.
More than 12,000 people participated in a demonstration in protest of the order later that day, according to police estimates, and called for organizers for ongoing protests. It largely rallied behind three main demands: a government dissolution, a new constitution and an end to the harassment of government critics.
Mr. Prayuth, a former army chief, led a coup in 2014 and led a junta government for nearly five years before calling last year’s election making him an elected leader. Polls have been marred by allegations from opposition leaders and pro-democracy activists that the election process favored the military-backed party.
Some activists exceeded three demands, breaking the long-standing taboo by openly criticizing the country’s powerful monarchy. The emergency decree released on Thursday cited an incident involving the royal family after several protesters shouted slogans as a motorcade carrying the queen passed.
Thailand has one of the strictest lèse-majesté laws in the world, which carries penalties of up to 15 years in prison for suspected insult to the royal family. While authorities avoided using the law against these demonstrators, the two activists were recently charged under another clause that they allegedly intended to harm the queen.
Mr. Prayuth told reporters on Friday that he had no intention of resigning. The palace did not comment on the protests.
On Friday, police deployed water cannons for the first time to evict people, deepening public outrage. In scenes reminiscent of antigovernment protests in Hong Kong, demonstrators practice in front of riot police surrounded on the back wall by open umbrellas to protect themselves from water leaks tied to blue pigment, a tactic sometimes used by the police to identify attendees.
Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong, a key figure in protests against Chinese influence in the territory, shared a photo on Twitter of Saturday of himself showing the three-finger salute with the hashtags “#StandWithThailand” and “#MilkTeaAlliance,” a reference to an online coalition of pro-democracy activists in Asia.
Thousands of people joined the protest on Saturday afternoon at Bangkok’s Lat Phrao intersection, where some donated protective helmets and goggles to others in attendance. The protesters were mostly young people, some of them teenagers, many wearing condoms and eye protection in anticipation of a confrontation with the police. Some protesters said the liquid sprayed from the water cannons the other day had burned their eyes.
“Instead of using water cannons to suppress us, the government should listen to what we have to say,” said Shim Muangthong, 22, a university student. “We are the next generation, we want space to freely express our opinions. We will not use violence, we come here without hands, we just want them to hear what we have to say.”
Authorities are trying to stop the demonstrations as protesters become more courageous. In what human rights groups have described as an effort, more than 50 activists have been arrested this week, including several prominent leaders. One of the two men charged with intent to harm the queen, student activist Bunkueanun Paothong, was released.
Antigovernment protests are common in Thailand, but have been characterized for years by clashes between two politically aligned groups. The current movement is different, analysts say, led by a new generation of democratic activists who are less visible in tradition and more connected to the world beyond their borders.
“The difference between these protests is that the powers that be are fighting against a generation that will not last long,” said Michael Montesano, coordinator of Thailand’s study program at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “The reason they don’t accept it anymore is that they have access to the internet, and they have a sense of how things work in other parts of the world.”
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