Thai protesters defy ban on gatherings after activist arrests

Youth-led movement defies government decree to stage protest in Bangkok for a second night

Around 2,000 pro-democracy protesters squared off against riot police in central Bangkok on Friday evening, defying an emergency decree for a second night running on a day that saw the arrest of two activists for using violence against the queen.

The largely young crowd chanted for the release of arrested activists and hurled obscenities at Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in the city's main shopping mall district.

"The younger generation will not stand for the status quo any longer," said design student Pim, 20, as the protesters raised their arms to display a three-fingered salute adopted from the Hunger Games films.

"The poor are becoming poorer and the rich are becoming richer. The gap is growing."

The kingdom's political elite has been jolted by the youth-led movement that is demanding the government's resignation and issuing a once-taboo call for reforms to Thailand's powerful monarchy.

On Thursday, Mr Prayuth imposed an emergency decree banning gatherings of more than four people, but a crowd of about 10,000 ignored the measure, demonstrating late into the night.

The premier warned protesters on Friday "not to violate the law" and police shut down the planned rally site – but activists changed venue to the shopping mall district of Pathumwan.

Friday's rally came after the arrests of about two dozen of the most prominent activists, including two under a rarely-used law banning violence against the queen.

Ekachai Hongkangwan and Bunkueanun Paothong were among activists who crowded around a royal motorcade carrying Queen Suthida on Wednesday during a large demonstration near the capital's government house.

In a Facebook broadcast on Friday morning, Mr Bunkueanun denied trying to harm the queen, insisting: "I am innocent. That was not my intention."

Both men could face life in prison under a law that has not been used for decades and punishes any "act of violence against the queen or her liberty".

It is not clear why the pair were singled out.

This is the first time such a serious charge has been levelled against pro-democracy activists, many of whom have already been hit with lesser charges, including sedition and breaking coronavirus rules on gatherings.

Their movement's demands include the abolition of a strict royal defamation law which shields the monarchy from criticism, and for the royal family to stay out of politics.

Among the other top activists arrested on Thursday was Panusaya "Rung" Sithijirawattanakul, whose detention was live-streamed on Facebook.

Anon Numpa, another leading activist, said he was forcibly taken by helicopter to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

His lawyer Krisadang Nutcharut told AFP that Mr Anon had been refused bail and was being held in Chiang Mai prison.

"Keep on fighting! My freedom is a very small issue compared to the entire struggle for democracy," Mr Anon posted on Facebook late on Thursday.

The opposition Pheu Thai party called on the government to lift emergency measures, stop the harassment of protesters and free those detained.

Thailand's modern political history is dotted with periods of violent civil unrest and more than a dozen military coups, the most recent of which brought Mr Prayuth,  former army chief, to power in 2014.

Bangkok-based analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak said the protest movement could heighten the chances of Thailand facing yet another military takeover.

"This endgame for Thailand's future has been building up for years, and it is finally here and now," he said.

"A brutal dispersal of the protest may take place."