About 20,000 anti-government protesters spread across three different locations dispersed peacefully on Saturday night, after a day in which authorities tried and failed to stop them by shutting down Bangkok’s rail mass-transit system.
Police largely kept their distance, in contrast to their aggressive dispersal operation on Friday, but they did arrest one of the few protest leaders who had escaped their grasp so far. An undercover officer armed with a warrant was seen leading Panupong “Mike” Jadnok away around 9pm. It was reported that he was being taken to the Hua Mark police station.
The BTS, MRT, Airport Rail Link and bus routes resumed normal service at 8.30 pm as the demonstrators began to drift home from noisy but peaceful gatherings at Lat Phrao, Udom Suk-Bang Na and Wong Wian Yai.
While rumours spread about imminent crackdowns — at Lat Phrao some front-line demonstrators passed around hard hats — the police presence was minimal. That was in contrast to Friday night, when a riot squad used a water cannon to disperse a peaceful gathering of about 2,000 people.
The protesters are calling for the resignation of the government led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a new constitution and an end to state harassment of critics of the government. More controversially, some are also pressing for reform of the monarchy under the constitution.
On Saturday the police were outmanoeuvred as members of the youth-led movement kept their plans a secret until the last possible minute. Authorities decided that Victory Monument and the Asok intersection were two likely spots, so they sealed off access completely. They were wrong on both counts.
Police also thought that shutting down the entire rail mass-transit system — even if it meant inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of Saturday commuters — would deter the protesters from coming out. Wrong again.
The MRT Blue Line was closed at 12.30pm and the Purple Line followed soon after. Fourteen BTS stations on the Sukhumvit and Silom lines were ordered to close at 2.30, and half an hour later the entire 40-station network was shut down. The Airport Link was closed as well.
The transit shutdown was a response to the protest organisers’ request for participants to board trains at 3pm and await further messages about their destinations. At 3.08pm, a tweet from the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration (UFTD) confirmed that rallies would go ahead at the Lat Phrao transit interchange, Udom Suk BTS station and the Wong Wian Yai roundabout.
Within an hour, large groups of demonstrators had made their way — on foot, motorcycle, taxi, tuk tuk and car pool in the absence of mass transit — to each of the venues, raising three-finger salutes along the way. Organisers said the events would finish at 8pm.
The biggest crowd was seen at Lat Phrao, while those who went to Udom Suk subsequently set out for the Bang Na intersection where they would have more space to accommodate their growing numbers. Some crowd-control police were seen arriving at Bang Na as darkness fell but there were no incidents.
The Metropolitan Police Bureau estimated there were 8,000 protesters at Lat Phrao, 8,000 at Wong Wian Yai, 6,000 at Udom Suk-Bang Na and 1,000 at another event at Ramkhamhaeng University.
Smaller gatherings also materialised at some other locations, including Samyan Mitrtown at Phaya Thai and Rama IV roads, and the Asok BTS station.
As well, UFTD said parallel rallies were to be held from 4pm to 6pm in 17 provinces: Ubon Thani, Nong Khai, Roi Et, Chon Buri (Pattaya), Nakhon Pathom, Phayao, Chiang Rai, Nakhon Sawan, Kalasin, Uttaradit, Trang, Udon Thani, Nakhon Ratchasima, Surin, Sakon Nakhon, Khon Kaen and Songkhla.
The fourth consecutive day of protests took place in defiance of the emergency decree imposed this week in the capital. Effective until mid-November, it bans gatherings of five or more people and the publication of news or online messages that could “harm national security”.
Gen Prayut has been urging authorities to enforce the decree vigorously in hopes of forcing the protest movement to back down. He said he would not rule out a night-time curfew if conditions continued to deteriorate.
For their part, the activists are trying to stay one step ahead of the authorities. On Friday, police laid razor wire across the Ratchaprasong intersection, where a huge rally had taken place on Thursday night, in anticipation of another gathering. The protesters adjusted quickly, shifting to the Pathumwan intersection, where police used water cannon to disperse a crowd of about 2,000.
Police on Saturday reiterated their determination to enforce the law, and defended their use of water cannon.
“The police abided by international standards to disperse the demonstration,” police spokesman Pol Maj Gen Yingyos Thepchamnong said at a news conference.
Authorities have faced heavy criticism for their response, as the demonstration at the Pathumwan intersection was peaceful.
Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri told Reuters: “There is no win or lose for any side. It’s all damage to the country. The government would like to ask protesters to not gather and remain peaceful.”
The stairs leading to the BTS Mo Chit station are sealed off as part of a government-ordered shutdown of the entire system on Saturday. (Photo: Apichit Jinakul)