Pro-democracy protests persisted in the Thai capital on Friday in defiance of an emergency decree issued Thursday banning demonstrations after months of anti-governmental unrest.

Thousands of protesters in Bangkok clashed with a heavy police presence as they rallied for the removal of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, restrictions on King Vajiralongkorn’s power and in support of new elections and constitutional amendments.

Riot police used water cannons and tear gas to try to disperse protesters, at least 20 of whom have been arrested in recent days.

The youth- and student-led protests began in July and are some of the country’s biggest pro-democracy demonstrations in years. Political freedoms in Thailand are tightly curtailed, and criticizing the king can lead to long prison sentences.

Despite the dangers, public criticism of the monarchy is growing. The three-finger salute has become one symbol of political resistance, a gesture protesters borrowed from the Hunger Games trilogy.

Following massive protests on Wednesday, the government issued an emergency decree restricting media coverage and banning gatherings of five people or more, the first sign of a deepening crackdown.

Police arrested two activists Friday on charges that they violated a rarely used law criminalizing violence against the queen, which carries a possible maximum sentence of life in prison.

In addition, Thai authorities on Friday blocked access to, an online petition website, for hosting a request for the Thai king to be banned from Germany, where he primarily lives. The petition had close to 130,000 signatures before it was banned, the BBC reported.

“The regime’s declaration of a state of emergency offers a pretext for a crackdown on protests not just in Bangkok, but in cities in the north, south and northeast,” said Tamara Loos, professor of history and Thai studies at Cornell University, in an email. “The intensity and size of recent protests against the regime and the monarchy have reached a tipping point, demanding change."

“The world is watching to see how Thailand’s king, who has yet to issue a public response, and its military regime will respond,” she said.

The political instability in the streets added to an already poor week for Thai stocks, which for months have been reeling from pandemic-related declines in the tourism-dependent economy.

While Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, the king maintains significant power and a larger-than-life status. But the monarchy’s popularity has also eroded in recent years amid deep slides in the country’s democracy and ongoing political instability.

The current prime minister, Prayuth, is a former general who won a disputed election last year. He’s aligned with a military junta who seized power in a 2014 coup and pushed through changes to the country’s constitution.

Paritta Wangkiat in Bangkok and Shibani Mahtani in Hong Kong contributed to this report.