BANGKOK - Several pro-democracy activists in Thailand were arrested as protests Saturday unexpectedly returned to Bangkok's streets, defying an emergency law imposed during a fresh COVID-19 outbreak to rally against a royal defamation law being wielded against their movement.
The main groups maaking up the Rasadorn (the people) movement have formally declared a hiatus to the major street rallies that rocked the kingdom, demanding sweeping reforms of Thai politics and the once-untouchable monarchy.
But pockets of protesters have switched from major scale rallies to smaller flash mobs and publicity stunts targeting the royal defamation law, section 112 of the Thai penal code.
The law carries a penalty of between three and 15 years per charge for "insulting, defaming or threatening" the monarchy and is loathed by Thailand's pro-democracy movement, which views it as a political weapon. More than 40 protesters so far have been charged under the law.
The new guerrilla tactics have included draping banners mocking the lèse-majeste law in shopping malls and from bridges, swapping national flags with the "112" insignia, and taking a live goat covered by a "112" blanket to a police station.
Authorities have been left red-faced by actions that normally bounce across social media before any arrests can be made.
But Saturday morning, Police Chief Suwat Changyodsuk warned of tougher action to stamp out the new tactics.
"Police will use force if necessary," he said. "What happens, happens."
A few hours later, dozens of police moved in as activists attempted to unfurl a roll of paper 112 meters long at the busy Victory Monument roundabout so passersby could write their objections to the draconian law.
One of the messages said "112 meters of the government's shame," though it was quickly torn up as police officers poured into the area.
A young protester was filmed as he was held in an arm lock and dragged into a police van by several officers. Another was detained at the scene also for breaking the emergency decree imposed to control the COVID-19 situation, lawyers said.
Shortly afterwards, anti-riot police canvased an area several kilometers away, where a protest faction called the Liberating Guards had gathered to challenge the arrests.
Scuffles with police ensued and video showed a minor explosion from a so-called ping pong bomb, which apparently was thrown toward a group of advancing riot police.
Five more protesters were arrested, according to advocacy group iLaw.
Until this latest round of skirmishes, the protests had been largely peaceful. There are fears of increasing violence, though, unless there is de-escalation by the government in a country where stalemates on the street often end in bloodshed.
"There has not been any sign of compromise from the Thai state whatsoever," said Sasinan Thamnithinan of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), which represents many of the detained protesters.
"People will not stop taking to the streets. Everything that the state is doing or not doing is forcing people to take to the streets because they don't listen."
Thailand is a deeply divided country.
Many citizens are royalists, fiercely loyal to the monarchy and hurt by the protesters' actions, who they blame for unjustly bringing the palace-Thailand's apex institution-into the country's messy politics.
Premier Prayuth Chan-O-Cha, an ex-army chief who seized power in a 2014 coup, warned in November he would bring "all laws" against anyone who attacked the monarchy.
At least 42 key activists have been charged since for alleged crimes, from mocking the king's fashion choices to questioning his preferred residency in Germany.
The protesters, a youth-focused reform movement galvanized through social media, emerged as a force early last year.
They have posed an unprecedented challenge to Thailand's conservative royalist establishment with their articulate and non-violent opposition to the ruling class.
They want the government of Prayuth Chan-O-Cha to resign, a new constitution to be written to reduce the military's political power, and for the monarchy, led by King Maha Vajiralongkorn, to be contained firmly under the constitution.
Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932, but 13 coups by the palace-aligned army have given the monarchy an outsized role in politics.
The royal defamation law had for decades smothered debate about the monarchy, but the protesters have crashed through that taboo, publicly raising issues around the king's power and financial and personal probity.
None of the protesters' demands have yet been met, seeding speculation their movement may be running out of momentum after months on the streets.
But late Saturday, the Rasadorn issued a rallying cry on Facebook: "Our movement is not dying down as many would have you believe.
"Prayuth and his clan haven't gone anywhere, the constitution is still not written by the people, and the monarchy is still above the constitution. Get ready for a big show."