Tens of thousands of Thai protesters cheered and chanted into the night in central Bangkok on Thursday in a mass show of defiance after the government imposed a state of emergency and banned demonstrations in a bid to end more than three months of protests.
As they dispersed at 10pm (15:00 GMT), protesters pledged to return to the same place every day with another rally planned on Friday.
The growing demonstrations have targeted King Maha Vajiralongkorn as well as Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup, in the biggest challenge for years to an establishment long dominated by the army and palace.
“Like dogs cornered, we are fighting till our deaths,” Panupong ‘Mike Rayong’ Jadnok, one the high-profile protest leaders who remains free, told the crowd. “We won’t fall back. We won’t run away. We won’t go anywhere.”
Protesters ignored police appeals to disperse and spilled from the Ratchaprasong Intersection across streets and walkways, their mobile phones shimmering in the night. The location, with its luxury shopping malls and hotels, was the scene of bloodshed in 2010, during more than a decade of violence between supporters and opponents of the Thai establishment.
Pavida Pananond, an associate professor at Thammasat Business School, says she is not surprised that people returned to the streets despite the new decree.
“There has been boiling sentiment,” she told Al Jazeera. “The protests show the depth of the anger and frustration of the people in Bangkok who do not even fear the elevated state of emergency.”
Protesters chanted for the release of some 40 activists arrested earlier in the week. Some also called out insults against the king – until recently an unprecedented act in a country where the constitution says he must be revered.
The emergency measures imposed on Thursday ban gatherings of five or more people.
“Free our friends!” the crowd chanted as they blocked off the major Bangkok intersection, watched by hundreds of riot police. Many held up the three-finger salute which has become the symbol of the pro-democracy movement.
“The people who came know that there is a ban against public gathering of five or more,” said police spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen. “We will take things step by step.”After the emergency measures were announced, police moved to clear protesters who had camped outside Government House, the prime minister’s office, following a huge rally on Wednesday during which police said a royal motorcade was obstructed. At least 20 activists were detained in the aftermath.
Videos shared widely on social media showed police protecting the royals’ yellow car as it inched through crowds of people holding their arms aloft in the three-finger salute, and shouting their demands.
“It is extremely necessary to introduce an urgent measure to end this situation effectively and promptly to maintain peace and order,” state television said.
The announcement was accompanied by a document setting out the emergency measures that took effect from 4am local time (21:00 GMT).
The emergency decree gives authorities powers to arrest protesters without warrants, and also to seize “electronic communications equipment, data and weapons”. Online messages that “threaten national security” are also banned.