Bangkok shuts down transit systems as protests persist

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Pro-democracy protesters show the three-finger salute during an anti-government protest at Udom Suk station in Bangkok Oct. 17, 2020. (Reuters)
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Thai police said that their response to Friday’s protest had been proportionate and in line with international norms. (Reuters)
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Updated 17 October 2020

Bangkok shuts down transit systems as protests persist

  • The protesters have been doing their best to elude the authorities
  • All stations of Bangkok’s elevated Skytrain mass transit system were ordered closed Saturday afternoon

BANGKOK: The authorities in Bangkok shut down mass transit systems and set up roadblocks Saturday as Thailand’s capital faced a fourth straight day of determined anti-government protests.

The protesters have been doing their best to elude the authorities, using social media to assemble followers before police have time to block them. The government has announced plans to take legal action against Twitter and Facebook accounts that announce the protests, but fresh calls to action were posted Saturday.

The protesters are calling for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to leave office, the constitution to be amended to make it more democratic and the nation’s monarchy to undergo reform. The protests have been called in defiance of a state of emergency imposed on Thursday.

All stations of Bangkok’s elevated Skytrain mass transit system were ordered closed Saturday afternoon in an effort to thwart protests. A line of the underground MRT system was also shut, and police blocked off several roads. Organizers had called for their followers to meet at Skytrain stations pending further instructions.

Groups of protesters met at many of the stations that were closed, in effect establishing a protest presence across the city. In a further twist, organizers issued a fresh advisory for followers to gather at three stations outside the city’s central area, where access was easier, especially for people living in the suburbs.

Police on Friday had also tried to block demonstrators, but failed when protest organizers announced a last-minute switch of venue.

Friday’s rally was broken up by a large contingent of riot police backed by water cannons after at least 1,000 people had gathered. It was the first time the authorities have employed such forceful tactics against the student-led protests. Both Thursday’s and Friday’s protests were held in normally busy areas of central Bangkok.

“The government has been pushing us to the cliff and now we have nowhere to go. We need to stand right now; if not now, then we don’t know when,” said one protester, a 26-year-old who declined to give her name for fear of getting in trouble with the authorities..

Police took control of Friday’s rally site after about an hour, though continued to engage with some stragglers. Flash protests were launched in solidarity at several universities around the country.

“From the dispersal of protesters on the evening of October 16, we have learned that the government and military have established themselves as the enemy of the people,” said a statement issued after Friday’s events by the People’s Party, the umbrella organization for the protesters. Most of its top leaders have been arrested.

The call by the protesters for reform of the monarchy has significantly raised the political temperature in Thailand, angering many older conservative Thais for whom any critical discussion of the monarchy is tantamount to treason.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn and other key members of the royal family are protected by a lese majeste law that has regularly been used to silence critics who risk up to 15 years in prison if deemed to have insulted the institution.

Prayuth’s declaration of a state of emergency said the measure was necessary because “certain groups of perpetrators intended to instigate an untoward incident and movement in the Bangkok area by way of various methods and via different channels, including causing obstruction to the royal motorcade.”

He was referring to an incident Wednesday that showed some members of a small crowd heckling a motorcade carrying Queen Suthida and Prince Dipangkorn as it slowly passed.

On Friday, two activists were arrested under a law covering violence against the queen for their alleged part in the incident. They could face up to life in prison if convicted. They denied any wrongdoing.


US official warns Taliban attacks could derail Afghan peace

Updated 20 October 2020

US official warns Taliban attacks could derail Afghan peace

  • Khalilzad urges militant group to honor ‘historic opportunity’ and end decades of war

KABUL: The US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation warned on Monday that increasing attacks by the Taliban could undermine the historic peace deal signed between Washington and the militant group in February.

Zalmay Khalilzad also said the strikes could derail the ongoing intra-Afghan talks in Doha, Qatar, that look to end the protracted conflict in the country.

“Continued high levels of violence can threaten the peace process and the agreement, and the core understanding that there is no military solution. Violence today remains distressingly high in spite of the recent reaffirmation of the need for a substantial reduction,” he said in tweets on Monday.

Since last week, the Taliban have unleashed a series of attacks in parts of Afghanistan, particularly in the southern Helmand province, where more than 35,000 people have been displaced over recent days, Afghan officials told Arab News.

In response, US forces in the country launched several airstrikes on Taliban positions, which the insurgent group described as a breach of the February accord on Sunday.

Responding to the Taliban’s accusations, Khalilzad said they were “unfounded charges of violations and inflammatory rhetoric,” and “do not advance peace.”

Washington also accused the Taliban of breaking the historic agreement, which, among other things, looks to finalize a complete withdrawal of US-led troops from the country.

Khalilzad said the airstrikes were conducted to support Afghan troops as part of Washington’s commitment to defend them, if necessary.

He added that the Taliban attacks in Helmand, including some in the provincial capital that targeted Afghan security forces, led to a recent meeting in Doha where both sides agreed to “decrease attacks and strikes.” And while levels of violence in Helmand have fallen, it “remains high” across the country, the Afghan-born diplomat added.

Some Afghan observers said the motive behind Taliban attacks was to gain an “upper hand” in negotiations.

However, Khalilzad warned of the risks involved in using this strategy.

“The belief that says violence must escalate to win concessions at the negotiations table is risky. Such an approach can undermine the peace process and repeats past miscalculation by Afghan leaders,” he said, urging all sides to honor the “historic opportunity for peace, which must not be missed.”

Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told Arab News on Monday that the group had “no comment” on Khalilzad’s statements and that US forces had “violated the Doha agreement in various forms by carrying out excessive airstrikes.”

Mujahid added that he had “no information” on the state of attacks in Helmand province.

However, Omar Zwak, a spokesman for Helmand’s governor, told Arab News that “fighting subsided in various parts of Helmand” over the past two days.

Meanwhile, an anonymous senior official in President Ashraf Ghani’s government praised Khalilzad for “beginning to get realistic” and “breaking silence over repeated Taliban attacks.”

Another figure, Kabul-based lawmaker Fawzia Zaki, said: “The government and Afghan people, in general, insisted on enforcement of a cease-fire or a drastic reduction of violence before the beginning of the intra-Afghan dialogue.”

For it to be effective, Khalilzad and Washington “need to exert growing pressure to make them listen to the righteous demands of ours,” Zaki added.

However, experts have warned of the “growing impatience” of both sides.

Shafiq Haqpal, an analyst, told Arab News: “Khalilzad’s comments clearly show that Washington is becoming impatient with Taliban attacks and the lack of progress in the talks.”

He said that US President Donald Trump is “hoping to see a breakthrough soon,” so that he can “portray it as a success of his administration for his re-election campaign.

“But that is not happening. Maybe Washington has realized that won’t happen, so they are beginning to come out and warn the Taliban against the consequences of their attacks,” Haqpal added.