BANGKOK – As anti-government protests in Thailand have escalated in recent days, the authorities have responded with an arsenal of threats, dictates and arrests. On Friday, they sprayed water cannons on protesters and sent rows of riot police on them to force a retreat. More than 20 protest leaders were arrested.
And two of them were charged on Friday with an obscure violation that could lead to life imprisonment: “Violence against the Queen’s freedom”.
The “act of violence” apparently yelled at a royal motorcade.
Two days earlier, a Rolls-Royce with Queen Suthida Vajiralongkorn Na Ayudhya and Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, the apparent heir, had made a surprising detour through some of the protesters who had been calling for new elections and reforms for the monarchy for months.
“Oh, the royal motorcade,” said Aekachai Hongkangwan, a veteran political activist, throwing his hand into the defiant three-finger salute borrowed from The Hunger Games protesters.
“Stay in line and keep the peace,” added Bunkueanun Paothong, a student, over a megaphone.
That’s it Both reports were confirmed by eyewitnesses and video footage. However, by Friday, both Mr. Aekachai and Mr. Bunkueanun had been charged with violating Section 110 of the Thai Criminal Code – a provision so mysterious that a database of cases held by the Thailand Supreme Court fails to mention it.
With an army drafted constitution and some legal provisions dating back to when the country was still an absolute monarchy, Thailand has many draconian crimes that can jail people for speaking out. A majesty law criminalizes criticism of the royal family and can mean prison terms of up to 15 years. (Mr. Aekachai was imprisoned for two years for insulting the Crown.) Riot and computer crime were used to imprison others.
However, the use of section 110 was unexpected. Human rights lawyers and legal scholars have struggled to understand what exactly constitutes an “act of violence against the queen’s freedom”. The penalty for the crime, which also applies to actions against the heir, ranges from 16 years to life in prison.
“When I was a student, the lecturer didn’t teach this and just skipped this law,” said Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, an opposition politician and former law professor.
On Friday, police raided the offices of Mr. Piyabutr’s political movement under a new emergency decree announced by the government on Thursday morning. It bans gatherings of five or more people in Bangkok and allows police to declare any location banned for protesters. The protesters can be held free of charge for up to 30 days without access to lawyers or relatives.
“Don’t be ruthless because anyone can die today or tomorrow,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said during a press conference on Friday in a warning to stop the rallies. “Don’t challenge the Grim Reaper.”
The protesters ignored Mr. Prayuth’s advice. On Friday afternoon, thousands of them, mostly student-aged, gathered again in steady rain, just as they had done the day before despite the Emergency Ordinance.
On Friday evening, hundreds of riot police stormed the demonstrators and used water cannons against them for the first time. They gushed from a pungent blue liquid and forced the demonstrators to withdraw.
With a smaller contingent remaining, the protest leaders called for an end to the rally, saying withdrawal would not mean defeat. Police said that seven people were arrested and that both security forces and civilians were injured. The emergency decree was extended until November 13th.
The appearance of the royal motorcade on Wednesday came as a shock to the protesters who never expected to be around the Queen and Prince. King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, the Queen and the heir appear to spend most of the year in Germany and rarely return to Thailand. (The queen is the king’s fourth wife, and the prince is the son of his third wife. The king also has a noble wife, similar to an official mistress.)
Criticism of the high status of the royal family in Thailand has been taboo for decades, but the student-led protest movement has destroyed that convention.
“The goal is to change the entire political system including the monarchy and the prime minister,” said Napassorn Saenduean, a political science student at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, who saw the royal motorcade glide by on Wednesday. It was the first time members of the royal family had seen these dissatisfied subjects up close.
Mr Prayuth, a retired general, became prime minister in 2014 after leading a military coup that was partially justified to protect the monarchy. Thailand’s royal family are among the richest in the world, and King Maha Vajiralongkorn has expanded his authority over military units and palace property.
A speech by the king the day before was published on Friday in which the 68-year-old monarch underscored the role of the crown in Thailand.
“Now it is understood that the country needs people who love the country and the monarchy,” he said.
The protests have attracted thousands of high school and college students who are taping their political awakening on social media despite their parents worrying about violence. Dozens of people were killed when a protest movement was cleared from the streets in 2010, the latest fight in a country used to deadly political violence.
“Each of us wants a land that belongs to the people,” said Nattarika Donhongpai, a student who attended the rally on Thursday evening in her school uniform. “We want everyone to come out and use their rights and voices to express everything.”
Ryn Jirenuwat and Muktita Suhartono contributed to the coverage.