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Thai protesters defy emergency with new rally in central Bangkok

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Hundreds of anti-government protesters staged a rally for a second straight day in Thailand's capital, defying a state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha to quell escalating demonstrations in support of monarchy reform and greater democracy.

[BANGKOK] Hundreds of anti-government protesters staged a rally for a second straight day in Thailand's capital, defying a state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha to quell escalating demonstrations in support of monarchy reform and greater democracy.

Protesters shouting "Prayuth get out" gathered at Ratchaprasong intersection in the middle of Bangkok's main shopping district and pushed police barricades, demanding the release of leaders arrested by the police in a morning raid. The location, in front of the Central World shopping mall, was the site of demonstrations in 2010 that ended with a clearance operation in which scores of people were killed.

The fresh demonstration comes a day after tens of thousands protesters broke through police lines in a march to Government House, Mr Prayuth's office, in an escalation of demonstrations that began in early July. Some protesters gave a three-finger salute - a symbol of the demonstrations - to a motorcade of Queen Suthida Bajrasudhabimalalakshana, who smiled and waved at them.

Those arrested included Arnon Nampa and Parit Chiwarak, according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. Mr Parit had written a statement calling for reform of the monarchy with 10 demands, including prohibiting the king from endorsing any coups and revoking laws that criminalise insults against King Maha Vajiralongkorn and top members of the royal family.

"The state of emergency will likely fuel the movement that's already gaining momentum," said Punchada Sirivunnabood, an associate professor of politics at Mahidol University near Bangkok. "The protesters will likely continue their movement because they're upset that the government isn't listening to their demand."

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The mounting protests have weighed on the nation's currency and stocks, with foreign investors turning net sellers of US$10.6 billion so far this year. The baht rose 0.1 per cent to 31.167 per dollar by 2.02 pm local time, rebounding from a 0.2 per cent loss earlier. The benchmark SET Index of stocks declined as much as 1.1 per cent, extending losses this year to 21 per cent.

"The situation is definitely less than ideal for investors especially if the protests escalate," said Mingze Wu, a currency trader at StoneX Group in Singapore. "We'll likely see an exodus of funds from Thailand into other similar countries in the region. The baht will definitely be weaker."

On Wednesday night, government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said legal actions would be taken against protesters who disrespected the monarchy - one of the first official responses that directly referenced the criticisms of the palace. Mr Prayuth also announced a so-called "Declaration of a Serious Emergency Situation in Bangkok," banning gatherings of five or more people and allowing for the arrest of anyone violating the rules.

It also banned reporting and publication of news that could "harm national security" and "cause panic."

A special Cabinet meeting on Friday will approve the emergency decree, Mr Anucha said Thursday.

The latest measures are in addition to a national emergency in place since the end of March to deal with the Covid-19 outbreak, which allows the government to enforce mandatory quarantines and streamline disease-control plans without multiple approvals.

The protests in the capital "may lead to more violence, affecting the economy and safety of the people" and hurting the nation's ability to control coronavirus infections, according to a notification signed by Mr Prayuth early on Thursday.

The protests, led mostly by students, have broken taboos about publicly criticising the royal family, which sits at the apex of power in Thailand. Demonstrators have questioned taxpayer funds that go toward royal affairs as well as laws that stifle discussion of the monarchy.

The protesters are also calling for the resignation of Mr Prayuth, a former army chief who staged a coup in 2014. They are pushing to rewrite the constitution drafted by a military-appointed panel that helped him stay on following elections last year. The government has said it's open to changes in some areas, but a process to rewrite the constitution has been delayed in parliament.

The protests had gained momentum amid the worst economic crisis facing the tourism- and trade reliant nation, which has passed a US$60 billion stimulus to battle the pandemic-triggered slump. The emergency may also hurt the government's plan to gradually reopen tourism to foreign visitors from this month.

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