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Thailand Hopes State Of Emergency Will Limit Protests

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Thailand's capital is on a kind of lockdown. But it's not the pandemic; it's politics. On Wednesday, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters gathered in Bangkok to push their demands for the military-backed government to step down.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Non-English language spoken).

(CHEERING)

MARTIN: Before the sun came up, however, an unidentified government spokesman read a statement on television.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED THAI GOVERNMENT SPOKESPERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: He declared a state of extreme emergency in the capital in a bid to end the student-led protests, whose demands also include calls to reform the country's powerful monarchy. Reporter Michael Sullivan is on the line from Bangkok.

Good morning, Michael. Just tell us what the situation on the streets is right now.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Well, Rachel, I just got back from a protest the demonstrators called for late this afternoon after they were driven from the prime minister's office this morning. And they are not listening to the terms of this extreme emergency that the government declared. One of those terms was no gatherings of more than five people. And now there are several thousand at the Ratchaprasong intersection in the commercial heart of the city. And they're defiant.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: They say they're not stopping. And so far, there's a heavy police presence but no intervention yet aside from this morning's arrests of several of the protest leaders. And the government says all of these measures are necessary because Wednesday's demonstration, they say, caused chaos and disorder, including disrupting a royal motorcade.

MARTIN: But, I mean, wasn't yesterday's demonstration largely peaceful?

SULLIVAN: It was. Even though there were tens of thousands gathered at Bangkok's Democracy Monument, there wasn't any real problem despite the fact that there were many pro-royalist demonstrators there on the sidelines dressed in yellow, which led some to believe there could be trouble. But there wasn't until the anti-government demonstrators started their march to the prime minister's office about a mile away.

And it's not exactly clear how, but there was a moment when some of the protesters were suddenly in the way of the queen's motorcade. And the only thing separating them from her limo was a thin blue line of police who forcibly parted the protesters to allow the motorcade to pass even as some flashed the three-finger salute from "The Hunger Games" movies as it did. And that seems to be the catalyst for all of that. This kind of thing just doesn't happen here.

MARTIN: And some of the protest leaders who were detained overnight are some of the most vocal about challenging not just the government but the whole monarchy as well, right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. And I don't think that's an accident. I think it's not a coincidence all this is happening while the king and queen are in Bangkok. They usually aren't. They spend a lot of time in Germany. And this is one of the things that some of these protesters have also criticized in addition to saying the monarchy has too much money and too much power.

And up until a few months ago, this kind of talk was taboo. You just don't talk publicly about the monarchy here in part because criticizing the king or the royal family can land you in jail for up to 15 years. But even after some of the students announced their manifesto to reform the monarchy back in August, in addition to their demands for the prime minister to step down and for a new constitution, the government really didn't crack down on them, apart from some arrests for sedition, until now.

MARTIN: Just in a matter of seconds, Michael, what happens now?

SULLIVAN: The students say they're not done. They vowed to continue. Now we'll need to see how the military-backed government, one that's long made defending the monarchy one of its core missions, responds to the students this afternoon.

MARTIN: All right. Reporter Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Thank you so much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.