Thai PM recalls parliament as protesters step up pressure on Monday (Oct 19)


ro-democracy activists flash three-fingered salutes during a demonstration at Kaset intersection, suburbs of Bangkok, Thailand, Monday (Oct 19, 2020). Thai authorities worked on Monday to stem a growing tide of protests calling for the prime minister to resign by threatening to censor news coverage, raiding a publishing house and attempting to block the Telegram messaging app used by demonstrators. - AP

BANGKOK, Oct 19 (AFP): Thailand's embattled premier called Monday for a special session of parliament as protesters held more rallies to demand his resignation, the release of jailed activists, and reforms to the monarchy.

Tens of thousands of mostly young protesters have taken to the streets in the past week and again on Monday (Oct 19) in defiance of an emergency decree banning gatherings of more than four people.

Police said around 20,000 people protested across the capital Sunday, although activists and local media estimated much bigger crowds.

Earlier on Monday evening Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha said parliament -- currently in recess -- would be recalled to discuss how to reduce tensions.

"We support opening an extraordinary session to solve this conflict," he told reporters, warning protesters not to break the law.

"I request protesters rally peacefully. The government has already compromised to some degree," he said.

The largely leaderless movement is calling for the resignation of Prayut -- a former army chief and mastermind of a 2014 coup -- as well as the re-writing of the military-drafted constitution they say rigged last year's election in his favour.

Most controversially, protesters are also making unprecedented demands to reform the powerful and ultra-wealthy monarchy.

They want the abolition of a draconian defamation law that shields King Maha Vajiralongkorn from criticism, greater transparency of royal finances, and for the monarch to stay out of politics.

The movement appeared to be gaining traction across the country with smaller protests taking place Sunday from Phuket in the south to Khon Kaen in the northeast.

Police standing guard outside the Nonthaburi police station during an anti-government rally by pro-democracy protesters on the ouskirts of Bangkok on Monday (Oct 19). - AFPPolice standing guard outside the Nonthaburi police station during an anti-government rally by pro-democracy protesters on the ouskirts of Bangkok on Monday (Oct 19). - AFP

It has gained momentum since July, but sharply escalated last week after a group of protesters surrounded a royal motorcade and flashed three-fingered "democracy salutes" -- borrowed from the "Hunger Games" movies -- at Queen Suthida.

Two activists now face charges under a rarely used law banning "violence against the queen" and face a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.

Confrontations escalated further on Friday when riot police used water cannon and other strong-arm tactics, provoking widespread outrage.

Prayut warned Monday the government needed to protect the monarchy.

"This is the duty of all Thais," he told reporters.

Apart from arrests by police, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society said it had flagged more than 325,000 messages on social media platforms that violated the Computer Crimes Act, which critics say is used to muzzle dissent.

Police also warned local media outlets that their coverage of the protests would be examined for possible illegal content.

By midday, #SaveFreePress was the latest hashtag trending on Thai Twitter, one of several platforms being used by tech-savvy protesters to coordinate their activity.

A pro-democracy protester uses a loudspeaker to talk to the crowd and gives the three-finger salute during an anti-government rally at Kaset intersection in Bangkok on Monday (Oct 19) as they continue to defy an emergency decree banning gatherings. - AFPA pro-democracy protester uses a loudspeaker to talk to the crowd and gives the three-finger salute during an anti-government rally at Kaset intersection in Bangkok on Monday (Oct 19) as they continue to defy an emergency decree banning gatherings. - AFP

They have also copied many tactics employed by Hong Kong protesters during months of frequently violent clashes there last year, including using improvised protective clothing in case of confrontations with riot police.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported that a government order dated Oct 16 sought the censorship of Prachatai and other online media outlets for distributing content that "could cause panic” and "could threaten national security.”

At a briefing on Monday, police said the order hasn’t been enforced yet and authorities would likely ask media outlets to remove content on a case-by-case basis rather than block them altogether.

"We’ve received information from our intelligence units that some content with distorted information has been used and disseminated to cause confusion and instigate unrest in society,” Kritsana Pattanacharoen, a spokesman for the national police, said at a briefing. The task force "would enforce the law to comply with freedom of the press principles,” he said.

Several news outlets released statements protesting the government’s move. Prachatai, which is continuing to post updates on Twitter, said it was "honored” to report accurate information on human rights and political developments in thailand, and "we’ll try our best in continuing to do so.”

The Thai Enquirer called for the order to be rescinded, saying the government should "read the content of new and digital media to understand the grievances and viewpoints of the people it claims to represent.”

Thai authorities also asked internet and phone service providers to block access to messaging application Telegram, used by the protesters in recent days to communicate their gathering plan.
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