Pro-democracy protesters show the three-finger salute as they gather demanding the government to resign and to release detained leaders in Bangkok Oct. 15, 2020. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

The emergency decree, issued early Thursday, sought to ban gatherings of five or more people and restrict media content in an effort to end protests that have taken direct aim at the once-untouchable monarchy and the Thai king in particular. It was the first sign of a brewing crackdown against the largely youth-led democracy movement, which saw several of its leaders arrested on the same day.

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 emergency 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 young student protesters — rallied against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and called for changes to the Thai 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.

Direct displays of disaffection like this 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 Thai king.

After the incident with the motorcade Wednesday, 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 22-year old Parit Chiwarak, 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 media that could “create fear” or “affect national security,” and police will now have the power to stop people from entering any area designated by the authorities.

 Police officers are seen during anti-government protests, in Bangkok Oct. 15, 2020. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

The Thai protest movement began taking shape in July amid the worsening economic climate and in response to long-standing disaffection with the erosion of democracy there. 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 ruling junta to extend its grip on power through the ballot box.

A new pro-democracy political party popular with the young, the Future Forward Party, won the third-largest share of votes in that same election but was forced to dissolve early this year.

Thai 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 a series of coups that have asserted the dominance of the military junta over democratically elected politicians.

The most recent coup in 2014 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 the Thai parliament.

King Vajiralongkorn took the throne in 2016 after the death of his father, the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who reigned for seven decades and was the world’s longest-ruling monarch when he died. 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 impact of the novel coronavirus.

Paritta Wangkiat in Bangkok contributed to this report.

Pro-democracy protesters demand the government to resign and release detained leaders in Bangkok Oct. 15, 2020. (Chalinee Thirasupa/Reuters)