The scenes unfolding today in Bangkok’s Ratchprasong retail district and Wednesday night at the Democracy Monument are ominous reminders of years past, when key areas of the capital were turned into war zones between protesters, the government and its supportsers.
In full view of journalists, groups of hardline royalists on Oct. 14 armed themselves with sticks and other objects and attacked several young pro-democracy demonstrators during a mass protest against the military-allied government.
It’s not hard to think of the violent street protests of a decade ago. Then as now, roving bands of men dressed in the royal color of yellow goaded peaceful demonstrators before they set upon pro-democracy protesters, kicking and beating them in several incidents recorded on mobile phones and posted on social media.
Observers said these recent attacks on protesters were perpetrated by agitators who meant to provoke a confrontation so that the authorities could then “restore order” by initiating a crackdown on the thousands of students and other young demonstrators who were marching to Government House to reiterate their demands for political reforms.
If that was the mission, then the royalists achieved their goal. Prayut, the leader of the wolf pack that led the 2014 coup now disguised in sheep’s clothing, unmasked his true self again Thursday morning by arresting 20 of Wednesday’s protest organizers and declaring a “Serious State of Emergency” in Bangkok, giving him the power to detain protestors without bail or access to a lawyer for 30 days, ban gatherings of five people or more and criminally punish the media for coverage seen as helping the movement’s cause.
“The “severe” emergency degree issuance feels like the NCPO makes a grand return. Then again, the majority of them never (left),” tweeted journalist Ryn Jinrenuwat.
Critics immediately blasted the emergency declaration, contending there had been no violence by the peaceful protestors to warrant the army-style crackdown.
In recent months, youth-led anti-government demonstrators have been gathering momentum with young activists, many of whom are university students, demanding that former army chief Prayut step down.
The young protesters have also broken an age-old taboo by demanding limits on the political and financial influence of the Thai royal family. These demands have angered hardline royalists who regard the monarchy as a sacrosanct institution and consider all members of the royal family to be above reproach.
In a scene that several observers have deemed historic, numerous young protesters lining a road flashed their pro-democracy movement’s three-fingered salute at a passing royal motorcade that forced its way through protesters as some members of the royal family traveling in a limousine were making their way to Bangkok’s Grand Palace to attend a Buddhist ceremony with a heavy police presence.
“Never thought I’d ever see anything like this in Thailand,” tweeted New Zeland expat and photographer Neil Shelley. This genie is not going back in the bottle.”
Such open acts of defiance to royalty are practically unheard of in Thailand, where commoners are expected to prostrate themselves in the presence of all members of the royal family.
Several royalists who came out to express support for the monarchy on Oct. 14 decried the pro-democracy protesters.
“The monarchy has never hurt the people. They’ve helped people since ancient eras,” Naret Wattakanon, who wore a yellow vest with the words “We Love the King Group,” told a local newspaper, referring to the country’s official narrative that for hundreds of years Thai monarchs have always acted in the interest of their subjects.
“Thailand is different from other countries in that we have had [the] monarchy since ancient times. We can’t change it,” the man stressed.
Past habits by those in power seem to die hard. Early on Oct. 15, phalanxes of police officers surrounded and then dispersed the hundreds of young demonstrators who had stayed overnight outside parliament to continue to demand Prayut’s resignation.
Police also detained some 20 leaders of the pro-democracy movement on grounds that they had violated an emergency decree that prohibits large gatherings, ostensibly so as to check the spread of Covid-19.
Yet despite such heavy-handed tactics, student leaders, most of whom are already facing various charges such as sedition, have pledged to carry on with their protests. The story will continue to unfold tonight.
The original version of this story first appeared in UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.