Thai protesters vow to return to streets after police clashes

Bangkok (AFP) –


Thai pro-democracy protesters vowed Saturday to again defy an emergency decree banning gatherings after days of confrontations in the capital that saw riot police use water cannon and dozens of activists arrested.

Officers in Bangkok dispersed thousands of demonstrators on Friday night by spraying water laced with blue dye and a chemical agent to mark participants for future legal action.

But the escalation in police tactics has not cowed the burgeoning youth-led protest movement, which is demanding the resignation of a premier first brought to power in a military coup and reform of the kingdom's powerful monarchy.

One of the pro-democracy movement's main organising groups called on its supporters to return to the streets on Saturday afternoon.

"Be prepared both physically and mentally for the demonstration and to cope with a crackdown if it happens," the online post from Free Youth said.

Another group, the United Front of Thammasat, called on activists to spread out at different stations on the city's Skytrain and subway network, prompting the operators of both rail networks to shut down services.

Police said they would shut key roads around suspected protest sites.

Thai Premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha extended an emergency decree banning gatherings of more than four people by another month on Friday.

The former army chief, who masterminded the coup in 2014 before being voted into power last year in an election protesters say was rigged in his favour, also rebuffed calls for his resignation.

- 'You're a tyrant' -

At least 65 prominent protesters have been arrested since Tuesday, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights told AFP on Saturday, as authorities escalated a crackdown on months of slowly building unrest.

Eight have since been released, including activist Tattep "Ford" Ruangprapaikitseree, who was bailed on Saturday after his detention the previous night.

He was quick to go live on Facebook to denounce the use of violence against unarmed protesters.

"The government is no longer legitimate. Prayut Chan-O-Cha, you're a tyrant," he said.

Two other activists were arrested on Friday under a rarely used law banning "violence against the queen" after they joined a group Wednesday that surrounded a royal motorcade with Queen Suthida as a passenger, flashing a pro-democracy salute as the car drove by.

Both men could face life in prison if convicted.

At least three protesters sustained slight injuries and five officers were admitted to the police hospital in Friday's clashes, authorities said.

The government insisted the use of force had been lawful to stop those trying to "create divisions" in the country.

"There was no victory or defeat for either side. It's a defeat for all Thais," government spokesman Anucha Burapanchaisri said in a statement.

- Royal reminder -

The pro-democracy movement is making an unprecedented challenge to the kingdom's powerful monarchy.

Protesters are demanding the abolition of a strict royal defamation law, which carries jail sentences of up to 15 years per charge, and for the monarchy to stay out of politics.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn sits at the apex of power.

Since ascending the throne in 2016, he has taken personal control of the palace's vast fortune -- worth an estimated $60 billion -- and moved two army units under his direct command.

Vajiralongkorn has yet to address the civil unrest directly, but during a ceremony broadcast on Friday, he told his subjects that Thailand "needs people who love the country, people who love the institution of the monarchy".

The government insists the reforms to the royal family are off-limits, but this position was becoming untenable, said International Crisis Group analyst Matthew Wheeler.

"The degree of repression necessary to effectively reinstate the prohibition, including online, would tarnish both the government and the monarchy."