Thai police arrested two activists Friday under a rarely-used law banning violence against the queen, after thousands of pro-democracy protesters defied an emergency decree to rally on the streets of Bangkok.
The kingdom’s political elite has been jolted by a youth-led movement that has demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha and issued a once-taboo call for reforms to Thailand’s powerful monarchy.
Ekachai Hongkangwan and Bunkueanun Paothong were among activists who crowded around a royal motorcade carrying Queen Suthida on Wednesday during a large demonstration near the capital’s government house.
Bunkueanun said during a Friday morning Facebook broadcast that he was surrendering himself to police.
“I am accused of trying to harm the queen,” he said. “I am innocent. That was not my intention.”
Ekachai told AFP by phone he had also been charged and police later confirmed he was in their custody.
Both men could face life in prison under a law that has not been used for decades and punishes any “act of violence against the queen or her liberty”.
It is not clear why the pair were singled out.
This is the first time such a serious charge has been levelled against pro-democracy activists, many of whom have already been hit with lesser charges, including sedition and breaking coronavirus rules on gatherings.
Their movement’s demands include the abolition of a strict royal defamation law — which shields the monarchy from criticism — and for the royal family to stay out of politics.
‘Free our friends!’
Police closed down roads in central Bangkok on Friday after protesters vowed to return to the streets in the evening — a move that would again defy an emergency decree banning gatherings of more than four people.
“I warn everyone not to violate the law,” premier Prayut said after holding a special cabinet meeting.
Some 10,000 people had rallied Thursday late into the night at the flashpoint junction of Ratchaprasong.
Confronting police, they demanded the release of around two dozen arrested activists, chanting “Free our friends!” and “Prayut get out!”.
Many displayed a three-fingered salute adopted from the “Hunger Games” movies as a symbol of the burgeoning movement.
Prayut said he had no intention of stepping down.
“No, I won’t quit,” he said. “What have I done wrong?”
Among the top activists arrested Thursday was Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, whose detention was live-streamed on Facebook.
Anon Numpa, another leading activist, said he was forcibly taken by helicopter to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
His lawyer Krisadang Nutcharut told AFP that Anon had been refused bail and was being held in Chiang Mai prison.
“Keep on fighting! My freedom is a very small issue compared to the entire struggle for democracy,” Anon posted on Facebook late Thursday.
History of unrest
Thailand’s modern political history is dotted with periods of violent civil unrest and more than a dozen military coups, the most recent of which brought Prayut to power in 2014.
Bangkok-based analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak said the protest movement could heighten the chances of Thailand facing yet another military takeover.
“This endgame for Thailand’s future has been building up for years, and it is finally here and now,” he said.
“A brutal dispersal of the protest may take place.”