Pro-democracy protesters take to the streets of Bangkok on October 17, 2020. Photo: AFP

Thousands of pro-democracy protestors took over a major Bangkok intersection on Sunday with posters bearing the faces of arrested activists, defying a ban on gatherings and stern warnings from authorities who have escalated a crackdown in recent days.

The youth-led movement has suffered several blows this week, with scores arrested after demonstrators surrounded a royal motorcade and flashed a pro-democracy salute to Queen Suthida during a Wednesday protest.

The government reacted by imposing “serious” emergency measures banning gatherings of more than four and allowing for the arrest of protest leaders, many of whom are calling for the removal of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former military chief first brought to power in a 2014 coup.

Police also deployed water cannon against unarmed demonstrators on Friday in Bangkok’s central shopping district in an escalation of tactics that drew outrage across Thai society.

But the crackdown has emboldened the movement’s mostly young supporters who have turned up in large numbers to daily guerrilla protests around Bangkok.

The locations are announced an hour before to outwit authorities, who shut down much of the city’s Skytrain and underground rail services to discourage people from joining in.

“I cannot let the students fight alone,” said 24-year-old Phat, a first-time rallygoer who arrived at Sunday’s protest venue at Bangkok’s Victory Monument. “I want true democracy,” he told AFP.

Thousands descended on the major traffic thoroughfare from 4pm (0900 GMT) shouting “Free our friends” while carrying posters of arrested activists.

They include human rights lawyer Anon Numpa, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, and Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul – three of the most recognizable faces in the leaderless movement who have consistently called for reforms to the monarchy.

Among their demands is the abolition of a draconian royal defamation law – which shields King Maha Vajiralongkorn from criticism – and a call for the monarch to stay out of the country’s turbulent politics.

Once-taboo in Thailand, the issue of royal reform demanded by protesters is one of the biggest challenges facing the kingdom’s conservative military-aligned government.

The social media-savvy protesters have also harnessed unorthodox ways of spreading their messages, sending alerts through newly formed groups on Telegram – a secure messaging app – and taken tips from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.

Across town in Asok, a popular shopping and restaurant district, a smaller group of protesters gathered and practiced hand signals to warn each other if authorities were to issue another severe crackdown.

“I think the government used too severe of measures against students on Friday, they were just kids with empty hands,” said 65-year-old Suk. “All they had were their mobile phones.”

National Police spokesman Yingyos Thepjumnong warned protesters earlier Sunday that no rallies “causing unrest and disorder” would be allowed. 

“If they defy it, police will do whatever is necessary to enforce the law,” he said.