By late afternoon, protesters had broken through security cordons and occupied one of the busiest intersections in Bangkok, jeering at police as they warned of arrests and read out the terms of the emergency decree.
“The dictatorship must be confronted by the people, even under the threat of arrest,” said Panupong Jadnok, who also goes by the nickname Mike Rayong, a nod to the Thai city he is from. “We won’t step back. We will fight until our death.”
He led protesters in a chant of “Release our friends,” a reference to the arrested student leaders.
The decree, announced on state television, is needed to “maintain peace and order” and put an end to “illegal public assemblies” in Bangkok, the government said. Over the summer, tens of thousands of Thais — led by students — rallied against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and called for changes to the constitution. They have also focused on the Thai monarchy, which is protected by some of the world’s strictest lèse-majesté laws and has enjoyed divine-like status in Thailand for decades.
Authorities said the decree came in response to protests Wednesday, at which demonstrators raised the three-finger salute, a symbol of resistance borrowed from the “Hunger Games” movie and book trilogy, at a royal motorcade carrying the Thai queen.
Such direct displays of disaffection toward the monarchy were unthinkable even months ago, but they have become more explicit as the movement has gained steam, with protesters carrying banners and posters mocking the king.
After the incident with the motorcade, protesters broke through police lines and marched to Government House, the prime minister’s residence. Thousands gathered there into the night until they were cleared by riot police in an early-morning sweep.
Among the 20 arrested were protest leaders Parit Chiwarak, a 22-year-old better known by his nickname Penguin, and human rights lawyer Anon Nampa. Anon and another activist were flown by helicopter to the province of Chiang Mai, where they had led a rally in August.
The emergency decree also prohibits the publication of news or other media content that could “create fear” or “affect national security,” and police will have the power to stop people from entering designated areas.
The protest movement began taking shape in July amid a worsening economic climate and in response to long-standing disaffection with the erosion of democracy in the country. After a junta took power in a 2014 coup, Prayuth, an army general, won disputed elections late last year. The vote was widely seen as rigged and an effort to enable the junta to extend its grip on power through the ballot box.
A new pro-democracy party popular with the young, the Future Forward Party, won the third-largest share of votes in that election but was forced to dissolve early this year.
Students have been leading the protests and in August broke a long-standing taboo when they directly took on the monarchy and the power it has in Thai society, as well as its growing wealth. Although Thailand moved from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in a bloodless revolution in 1932, the palace retains wide-ranging powers and is deeply embedded in the economic and cultural fabric of the country.
The monarchy has also failed to stabilize political tensions in Thailand, which has been rocked by coups that have asserted the dominance of the junta over democratically elected politicians.
The 2014 coup also resulted in a new constitution, at the request of the present king, that further eroded democracy by changing voting procedures to stop any single political party from dominating parliament.
King Vajiralongkorn took the throne in 2016 after the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who reigned for seven decades and was the world’s longest-ruling monarch. The king spends most of his time in Germany, adding to the resentment of Thais, who see him as spending lavishly even as Thailand’s economy suffers from the fallout of the novel coronavirus.
Paritta Wangkiat in Bangkok contributed to this report.