Pro-democracy protesters give the three-finger salute during an anti-government rally at Kaset intersection in Bangkok on October 19, 2020, as they continue to defy an emergency decree banning gatherings. Photo: AFP/Mladen Antonov

BANGKOK – After the military-backed government used truck-mounted cannons to blast irritant-laden water at protesting youngsters in the streets of Thailand’s capital last week, the protests spread.

“Don’t challenge the Grim Reaper,” Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha warned.

“We are just asking people not to do wrong and not to destroy the government and people’s property.

“What the government needs to do is to protect the monarchy,” Prayut said on Monday. 

The regime has repeatedly shut down Bangkok’s mass transit system during the ongoing protests, stranding thousands of commuters. But the public transport closures did nothing to stop the escalating pro-democracy dissent.

Looking increasingly desperate, vulnerable and bewildered, Prime Minister Prayut did the unthinkable – he declared it illegal to go online and post selfies snapped at protest sites.

Protesters and others laughed at what seemed to them to be Prayut’s ridiculous response. 

Peaceful, nationwide, pro-democracy protests led by tens of thousands of university students and schoolchildren took place for the seventh straight day Monday.

This time the protesters chose three main sites in Bangkok – near Khlong Prem Prison, Kasetsart University and the Health Ministry – while protests were also held in other cities around the country.

Thai high school students hold up signs of the French motto during an anti-government rally at Kaset intersection in Bangkok on October 19, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mladen Antonov

They duplicated successful rallies which have been announced at 3pm each day on Twitter, Facebook and the secure messenger app Telegram.

“Death to dictatorship, long live democracy,” a massive crowd shouted during a rally on Monday.

Similar to previous protests, the young crowd blocked traffic, voiced often vulgar anti-Prayut and anti-monarchy speeches and dissolved at 8pm.

“A leaked government document ordered internet service providers in Thailand to block access to Telegram,” Khaosod English news media reported on Monday.

It was not possible to immediately confirm that report, but Khaosod is usually reliable. 

“The ‘Top Secret’ order, seen by Khaosod English, cited the emergency decree that granted security officers power to block and control any information on the Internet deemed to cause unrest in the country. 

“The letter was addressed to the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, telling the agency to pass its instructions to all service providers,” Khaosod reported.

Free Youth, one of the groups leading the protests, invited their thousands of online members to join their Telegram channel on Monday for “unlimited information.”

Free Youth Group’s updates include translations into Thai from Hong Kong’s Chinese-language protest manuals, which advise “be like water” mobility instead of occupying sites, plus what to wear and where to rally.

A pro-democracy protester jokingly uses a traffic cone as a megaphone during an anti-government rally at Victory Monument in Bangkok on October 18, 2020. Photo: AFP/Jack Taylor

Hoping to stop the increasingly popular protests, authorities on Sunday made it illegal for anyone to photograph themselves at a rally and post that selfie online.

Selfie violations are punishable by two years’ imprisonment and a US$1,330 fine.

Police have reportedly busted more than 10 people for selfie crimes.

At Bangkok’s Victory Monument on Sunday, many protesters gleefully shot selfies with the dramatic scene of tens of thousands of demonstrators in the background.

It was unclear if they would post those pictures online because of the ban. 

More than 10,000 people, mostly students in their teens and 20s, peacefully gathered at Victory Monument’s traffic circle, standing and sitting in the street.

Similar to recent shutdowns, the government canceled all public metro rail services throughout Bangkok on Sunday afternoon, but the rally went ahead without additional police interference.

In front of the locked gates at two metro stations on Sunday, protesters placed a plastic dish filled with dog food and a sign mocking rail system officials for obeying the temporarily shutdown order.

Shops, restaurants and other facilities remained open at the protest sites.

The rallies need virtually no financing except for a portable, extremely loud speaker system and an electric generator, enabling multiple leaders to voice lengthy statements to the cheering crowds.  

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha at Government House in Bangkok on October 16 announcing the emergency decree. Photo: AFP/Royal Thai Government

Their “flash mob” hit-and-run tactics have rattled Prayut, a former army chief.

Thailand’s politically minded, US-trained military brought him to power in a 2014 coup, endorsed his 2019 election and have supported him up to now.

Protesters demand Prayut’s resignation, a new constitution without the political and human-rights restrictions he inserted in a rewritten 2017 charter, and fresh elections for Parliament including the 250-seat Senate that he helped monopolize with appointees.

Their most shocking, difficult and dangerous demand is to limit the powers and wealth of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 68, one of the world’s richest monarchs.

“Now it is understood that the country needs people who love the country and love the monarchy,” the constitutional monarch said in a speech last Friday. 

Most of what protesters shout at rallies, spray paint as graffiti on Bangkok’s grimy walls, post on the Internet and say in news interviews about the monarchy is illegal under the constitution and harsh lese-majeste law.

Punishment can be 15 years in prison.

Police recently arrested two activists under a separate law after other nearby protesters displayed their popular three-finger salute, inspired by the Hunger Games movie, and shouted at a motorcade transporting Queen Suthida and her stepson Prince Dipangkorn, who is the heir apparent.

A pro-democracy protester gives the three-finger salute at a Bangkok rally. Photo: AFP/Jack Taylor

The two men denied flashing three fingers or voicing any dissent during the brief incident in Bangkok on October 14. Punishment can be life imprisonment.

Prayut responded to the swelling protests on October 15 by putting Bangkok under a “serious state of emergency,” extending an existing state of emergency declared in March to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

The new edict bans gatherings in public of more than five people, distributing or publishing data that the government perceives as instigating fear or distorts information, and using public transportation or buildings for dissent.

Security forces, enjoying immunity under the edict, can detain people for 30 days in military camps without access to a lawyer.

The protests started in July. On September 19, tens of thousands of people started making daily appearances on Bangkok’s streets.

During recent days, similar student-led mass rallies have appeared in several main cities scattered across this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.