People sit beside a portrait of Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn during an anti-government rally by pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok on October 14, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Mladen Antonov

BANGKOK – Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha declared a state of emergency early this morning to ban protests and sensitive news, a clampdown that will give ammunition to protestors baying for his military-aligned government’s ouster and monarchal reforms.  

The decree was implemented in response to Wednesday’s student-led street demonstration in Bangkok that at one point partially obstructed the passage of Queen Suthida and Prince Dipangkorn’s royal motorcade and culminated in thousands of protestors surrounding Government House.

TV footage showed protesters shout and give their trademark, anti-military three-finger salute to the royal Rolls Royce as it passed with rag-tag police protection amid the crowd. Authorities traditionally require Thais to kneel in respectful silence when royal motorcades pass through blocked-off roads in the capital city.    

Protest leaders had announced their intent to stay put for three days but were swept up by police just ahead of the decree’s 4:00 am implementation. The student-led group’s leaders were arrested in the police sweep and it wasn’t immediately clear if they would soon be released and on what charges they were being held.

Other student group leaders promised new emergency rule-defying protests in Bangkok, setting the stage for potential violence and a firmer state crackdown on liberties. Thousands of demonstrators gathered and sat in the streets at central Bangkok’s Ratchaprasong district on Thursday afternoon to protest the recent arrests of student leaders.

The emergency clampdown marks a hard turn after widely perceived as kid gloves government treatment of months of student demonstrations that recently widened their umbrella to include Red Shirt protestors affiliated with coup-ousted, self-exiled ex-prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra.

Wednesday’s protest, held symbolically on the anniversary of a mass uprising against military rule in 1973, had threatened to tilt towards violence as rival yellow shirt supporters assembled in close proximity to the student protests to cheer the scheduled passage of King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s motorcade.  

Thailand’s Queen Suthida (C) and Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti (C) react inside a royal motorcade as it drives past a pro-democracy rally as anti-government protesters (back) hold up their three-finger salute, in Bangkok, October 14, 2020. Photo: AFP

Thailand’s king, who lives mainly in Germany, is scheduled to be in residence in the kingdom for at least the next two weeks attending to various royal ceremonies and functions. It’s not clear to what extent the government’s decision to impose emergency rule was motivated by perceived slights to the royal family.

Student protesters have taken historic, critical aim at the monarch’s role, including in a ten-point declaration that boldly calls for monarchal reforms that seek to abolish laws that severely ban royal criticism, sharply reduce the royal budget and establish a clearer separation between royal and state assets, among other royal power-reducing measures.   

Neither Prayut’s government nor the Royal Household has responded to the sensitive demands, which the student group has insisted since their first announcement in August are aimed at making the “esteemed” royal institution more compatible with a modern democracy and do not aim ultimately to topple an institution many Thais revere as sacred.

Thailand’s lese majeste law, outlined in Article 112 of the penal code, is among the world’s most draconian allowing for 15-year prison terms for vaguely defined royal slight or criticism. Vajiralongkorn had earlier advised the law’s use should be curbed, an opening the students have exploited to press their royal reform call.

It has also tentatively allowed for a wider debate than previously on the monarch and monarchy over social and to a lesser extent mainstream media, witnessed most overtly in several royal-related critical hashtags, including one that asks “Why does Thailand need a king?” that have gone viral on Twitter in recent weeks.

The question now concerns how firmly authorities will enforce the emergency decree’s ban on “sensitive” information and news. Prayut, a staunch royalist and former coup-maker who steered the kingdom’s transition from revered, deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej to Vajiralongkorn’s new reign, is under pressure to more firmly suppress royal criticism.  

Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida greet people outside the Grand Palace after a royal merit-making ceremony to mark the fourth anniversary of the death of the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok. Photo: Stringer via AFP/Daily News

One government insider who spoke anonymously said before the imposition of emergency rule that the government’s tactic was to go soft on student protests to avoid giving them added ammunition and in hope they would “fizzle out” and “fall apart” amid reports student groups and leaders were at odds over tactics and messaging, including regarding the monarchy.

The same source said Vajiralongkorn had advised while in Thailand in mid-August that the students should be allowed to air their views, royal advice Prayut’s government appeared to heed in subsequent weeks even as protestors upped the tempo of their criticism, including at a historic September 19 protest held on royal grounds overlooking Bangkok’s Grand Palace.

Anon Nampha, a protest leader and human rights lawyer now being held in police detention, suggested on that night that the royal budget should be cut so “elderly Thais” could more readily receive pensions and asked the royal household if they would allow for the Grand Palace to be “returned to the people”, intentionally provocative statements in Thailand’s context.

Police have said he is being held in part for an August speech he made in Chiang Mai where he first publicly raised his royal reform call. “My generation has grown up in fear of the lese majeste law,” said Anon on stage to a cheering crowd of students and Red Shirts on September 19. “If I could exchange my freedom for speaking about the king, I would gladly do so.”

His October 14 speech reiterated the student protest group’s three demands – Prayut’s resignation, constitutional change and monarchal reforms – the last of which received the most rousing response from gathered demonstrators.

Anon had earlier been detained and released on sedition, not lese majeste, charges, but some observers suggest that could change under emergency rule and the vague new ban on “sensitive” information. That could also hinge on a motion before the Constitutional Court which will apparently rule if the ten-point royal reforms represent an attempt to topple the monarchy.

Still, there would appear to be limits on how hard Prayut can clamp down on royal-related dissent while maintaining a veneer of democracy, particularly as certain protest leaders appear willing to play the role of pro-democracy matryrs in prison to give their protest drive what some observers believe was a needed new focal point to maintain momentum.  

Protest leader Anon Nampha at an August 16, 2020 protest at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument. Photo: Asia Times/Shawn W. Crispin

A wider, harsher crackdown on social media users and even a potential block of Twitter, which last week suspended accounts allegedly used for military-run disinformation campaigns, could be in the offing, though observers say such a block would be difficult to implement and politically risky.

Prayut’s elected government could also wobble and potentially dissolve from within if big coalition partners, namely the Democrat and Bhumjaithai parties,  perceive he is veering back towards his 2014-19 coup administration’s heavy-handed ways, where vague bans on expression were firmly enforced by soldiers that resulted in scores of lese majeste-related arrests.

Even before the imposition of emergency rule, speculation of a possible ultra-royalist military coup in the name of protecting the monarchy and shutting down anti-royal criticism Prayut has seemingly allowed to be breath was already percolating in Bangkok. That scenario sees outgoing army commander and recently appointed palace Grand Chamberlain General Apirat Kongsompong taking the premiership from Prayut.

A new coup or extreme democratic backsliding attended by mass arrests would inevitably raise hackles in the European Union and potentially the US, particularly if Joe Biden unseats Donald Trump in November. If done overtly in the name of crushing royal-related dissent, it could also jeopardize Vajiralongkorn’s residence in Germany, diplomats say.

Last week, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in parliament that Vajiralongkorn should not engage in politics from German soil in response to a Green Party question about calls for democratic and royal reform in Thailand. He said the government should “counteract” Thai state business from being conducted in Germany.  

A portrait of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn is seen as police gather during an anti-government rally by pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok on October 14, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mladen Antonov

One government insider suggested that the royal household was already making alternative arrangements to establish a residence in neighboring Switzerland, where Queen Suthida already spends much of her time.

Whether that would be a more hospitable living environment for the king and his entourage while an anti-royal crackdown is underway back in Thailand, however, is unclear.

The Swiss Embassy in Bangkok has long played a behind-the-scenes role in trying to mediate Thailand’s enduring political conflict between opposed camps, including through private meetings with top players across the political divide.

That included a recent dinner with banned anti-military politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who made clear his thoughts on the need for reforms of a monarchy he reputedly views as the “apex” of Thailand’s anti-democratic system, according to sources familiar with the discussion.

Pro-democracy protesters seen next to Democracy Monument during an anti-government demonstration on October 14, 2020 in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: Stringer/Anadolu Agency