Thai police dispersed protesters who surrounded the prime minister’s office and arrested top leaders in an early-morning raid following rare scenes in which demonstrators openly defied members of the royal family.
Tens of thousands of protesters broke through police lines on Wednesday in a march to Government House, the official office of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, in an escalation of demonstrations that began in early July. Some protesters gave a three-finger salute — a symbol of the demonstrations — to a motorcade of Queen Suthida Bajrasudhabimalalakshana, who smiled and waved at them.
Those arrested included Arnon Nampha and Parit Chiwarak, according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. Parit had written a statement calling for reform of the monarchy with 10 demands, including prohibiting the king from endorsing any coups and revoking laws that criminalize insults against King Maha Vajiralongkorn and top members of the royal family.
On Wednesday night, government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said legal actions would be taken against protesters who disrespected the monarchy — one of the first official responses that directly referenced the monarchy. Prayuth also declared a state of emergency banning gatherings of five or more people and allowing for the arrest of anyone violating the rules. It also banned reporting and publication of news that could “harm national security” and “cause panic.”
The protests in the capital “may lead to more violence, affecting the economy and safety of the people” and hurts the nation’s ability to control coronavirus infections, according to a notification signed by Prayuth early on Thursday.
The mounting protests have weighed on the nation’s currency and stocks with foreign investors turning net sellers of $10.6 billion so far this year. The baht fell 0.1% to 31.215 per dollar early on Thursday, heading for a second straight day of decline, and extending losses this year to 3.9%.
“The situation is definitely less than ideal for investors especially if the protests escalate,” said Mingze Wu, a currency trader at StoneX Group in Singapore. “We’ll likely see an exodus of funds from Thailand into other similar countries in the region. The baht will definitely be weaker.”
The protests, led mostly by students, have broken taboos about publicly criticizing the royal family, which sits at the apex of power in Thailand. Demonstrators have questioned taxpayer funds that go toward royal affairs as well as laws that stifle discussion of the monarchy.
The protesters are also calling for the resignation of Prayuth, a former army chief who staged a coup in 2014. They are pushing to rewrite the constitution drafted by a military-appointed panel that helped him stay on following elections last year. The government has said it’s open to changes in some areas, but a process to rewrite the constitution has been delayed in parliament.
The protests had gained momentum amid the worst economic crisis facing the tourism- and trade reliant nation, which has passed a $60 billion stimulus to battle the pandemic-triggered slump. The emergency may also hurt government’s plan to gradually reopen tourism to foreign visitors from this month.