Thai authorities rounded up protest leaders under sweeping emergency powers announced on Thursday as it launched a crackdown on escalating pro-democracy demonstrations that have also targeted the unassailable monarchy.
Three top activists were among nearly two dozen arrested under a decree that also banned gatherings of more than four people after months of student-led protests against the government.
It comes a day after protesters challenged a royal motorcade – flashing the three-fingered salute adopted from The Hunger Games books and films – in an unprecedented act of defiance against the monarchy.
After the emergency measures were announced early on Thursday, riot police dispersed hundreds of protesters who camped overnight outside the prime minister’s office in Bangkok.
Army spokesman Lieutenant-General Santipong Thampiya played down the presence of military officers around some government buildings, writing on Facebook they were there “to assist the law enforcement”.
Premier Prayut Chan-o-cha was army chief when the military seized power in a 2014 coup before winning a disputed election in March last year as a civilian.
Student leader Parit Chiwarak was among those arrested, according to Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul – another prominent activist, whose own arrest was live-streamed on Facebook.
Anon Numpa, another senior figure of the protest movement, said he was forcibly taken by helicopter to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand “without my lawyer”.
“This is a violation of my rights and is extremely dangerous to me,” he wrote on Facebook.
It was not immediately clear how those arrested were accessing their social media accounts.
As well as limiting gatherings to four people, the new emergency measures also allow the seizure of “electronic communications equipment, data, and weapons suspected to cause the emergency situation”, a government spokesman said.
“These are orders banning gatherings of five or more people . . . and banning distributing of news through electronic media that can affect national security,” the spokesman said in a statement.
The order was imposed after thousands of demonstrators rallied on Wednesday around Bangkok’s Democracy Monument ahead of a scheduled drive-by of a royal motorcade carrying King Maha Vajiralongkorn and his family.
While police cordoned most of the protesters away from the royal route, dozens were still present as the motorcade passed. Queen Suthida, sitting next to Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, could be seen staring from a limousine window as protesters flashed the three-fingered salute.
Such overt challenges to the monarchy are unheard-of in Thailand, where the royal family’s influence permeates every aspect of society.
Leading opposition figure Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit decried the crackdown, calling for the government to “free all arrested people”.
“The government must quickly find a way to respond to protesters’ demands, otherwise the situation will fan out nationwide,” he said.
Student leaders took to social media to urge supporters to take to the streets on Thursday, but there was no immediate sign the calls were being heeded.
“Come out in force – only giving moral support from home is not enough,” said the Free Youth Movement, which had organised massive demonstrations in recent months.
Police said they would set up checkpoints around Ratchaprasong junction, the site of a major crackdown in 2010, after Thailand’s top trending Twitter hashtag urged people to gather there.
The king spends much of his time in Europe, but has been in Thailand in recent days for an annual Buddhist ceremony and the anniversary of his father’s death.
Enormously wealthy, he is supported by the powerful military – which has long positioned itself as the defender of the monarchy – as well as the establishment elite.
There have been several popular uprisings in the turbulent modern history of Thailand, which has endured long stretches of political unrest and more than a dozen military coups since 1932.
In the latest protests, leaders have repeatedly said they wish only for the monarchy to adapt to modern times.
Their demands include the abolition of a strict royal defamation law – which shields the king from criticism – and for the monarch to stay out of politics.
Since the latest protests started dozens of activists have been arrested, charged with sedition, and released on bail.
Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said the premier had ordered police to press charges against “the protesters who obstructed the royal motorcade” on Wednesday.
Charges will also be pursued against “those who had acted in a way that defames the monarchy”, he said in a statement.
“They must face legal procedures without exception.”