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Bangkok in state of emergency after protest against Thai monarchy

Thai authorities declared a strict new state of emergency for the capital today, a day after a student-led protest against the country's traditional establishment saw an extraordinary moment in which demonstrators heckled a royal motorcade.

A protester shouts at Thai policemen during a demonstration in Bangkok, Thailand. Source: Associated Press

After the pre-dawn declaration, riot police moved in to clear out demonstrators who after a day of rallies and confrontation had gathered outside Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's office to push their demands, which include the former general's stepping down, constitutional changes and reform of the monarchy.

Several top leaders of the protest movement were taken into custody, with one later declaring on his Facebook page that he had been denied access to a lawyer and was being forced onto a helicopter and taken to a city in the country's north.

Police said they had made 22 arrests.

The text of the emergency declaration said it was needed because "certain groups of perpetrators intended to instigate an untoward incident and movement in the Bangkok area by way of various methods and via different channels, including causing obstruction to the royal motorcade".

The protest in Bangkok's historic district, not far from glittering temples and royal palaces, was the third major gathering by student-led activists who have been pushing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable — and legal — language by publicly questioning the role of Thailand's monarchy in the nation's power structure. 

Thailand's royal family has long been considered sacrosanct and a pillar of Thai identity.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn and other key member of the royal family are protected by a lese majeste law that has regularly been used to silence critics who risk up to 15 years in prison if deemed to have insulted the institution.

The protest — held on the anniversary of a 1973 student-led uprising against a military dictatorship — was complicated by the presence of royalist counter protesters who had gathered both to show support for the government and to greet the royal family as they traveled to and from a religious ceremony in the area.

That led to a moment captured in photos and video that circulated widely on social media in which what appeared to be protesters gestured and shouted just meters from the royal motorcade. Such actions are unprecedented in Thailand, where those waiting for a royal motorcade regularly sit on the ground or prostrate themselves.

Some experts say a line may have been crossed.

"What seemed to be a low-boil stalemate that the Prayuth government was managing with reasonable success has now, following the incident involving the procession of the queen's motorcade down a street in which an active protest was under way and the arrests of protest leaders, become a full-blown crisis," said Michael Montesano, coordinator of the Thailand Studies Program at the ISEAS-Yusof Isak Institute in Singapore.

"Unlike even 48 hours ago, the country is in dangerous territory now."

Government spokesman Anucha Buraphachaisri announced the prime minister had ordered police to take strict action against those who obstruct a royal procession or otherwise insult the monarchy.

Keeping order will be facilitated by the new emergency decree for Bangkok, which bans unauthorised gatherings of more than five people and gives authorities other powers they deem needed to prevent unrest, including detaining people at length without charge.

It also outlaws the news that distorts information or could cause a "misunderstanding".

Thailand is already under a national state of emergency as part of its efforts to fight the coronavirus, and it was not immediately clear how the new decree was different. 

One change is that police said they will install checkpoints around Bangkok for security purposes.

Protesters were undaunted and said they would gather again in a Bangkok shopping district.

Deputy police spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen warned that calling for such a protest or attending one was against the law.

"You cannot say that they are not aware of the order. We are making it clear," Kissana said at a news conference

Human rights group Amnesty International criticised the crackdown.

Its deputy regional director Ming Yu Hah urged Thai authorities to "engage in constructive dialogue with the protesters". 

"The scale of today's early morning arrests seems completely unjustified based on yesterday's events. The assemblies were overwhelmingly peaceful. These moves are clearly designed to stamp out dissent, and sow fear in anyone who sympathises with the protesters' views," the group said in a statement.

The protest movement was launched in March by university students, but quickly put on hold as Thailand was gripped by the coronavirus pandemic.

It came back in July, when the threat from the virus eased, and since grown in size.

The movement's original core demands were new elections, changes in the constitution to make it more democratic, and an end to intimidation of activists.

The protesters charge that Prayuth, who as army commander led a 2014 coup that toppled an elected government, was returned to power unfairly in last year's general election because laws had been changed to favor a pro-military party.

The protesters say a constitution promulgated under military rule and passed in a referendum in which campaigning against it was illegal is undemocratic.

The movement took another stunning turn in August, when students at a rally aired unprecedented criticism of the monarchy and issued calls for its reform.

Airing their grievances in direct language normally expressed in whispers, the speakers criticised the king's wealth, his influence and that he spends much of his time in Germany, not Thailand.

Conservative royalist Thais accuse the protest movement of seeking to end the monarchy, an allegation its leaders deny.

Nevertheless, analysts say the incident with the royal motorcade may harden positions.

"[It] is not just unprecedented but will be shocking for many," said Kevin Hewison, professor emeritus from the University of North Carolina and veteran Thai studies scholar.

"Yet it is reflective of how a new generation of protesters sees the monarchy and military-backed regime as intertwined and that political reform demands reform of the monarchy as well."