BANGKOK - The Thai cabinet Tuesday endorsed a bill to regulate protests, including banning the occupation of state buildings, after years of political turmoil marked by repeated rounds of demonstrations.
Colourful mass rallies, marches and occupations - including of Government House and the capital's main airports - have become a key weapon in the political power struggles that have roiled the kingdom for nearly a decade.
All political protests are currently banned under martial law imposed by the junta which seized power in May. Under the bill organisers of political protests will now have to seek police permission for them 24 hours in advance and will no longer be able to seize government buildings or transport hubs such as airports.
The bill will have to pass a vote at the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly for discussion before it comes into law.
It aims to craft tight rules on protest venues, timings and "how authorities can deal with protesters", Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha told reporters. Prayut led the coup which toppled the elected administration in May, following several months of anti-government protests that saw demonstrators occupy Government House as well as several main traffic intersections across Bangkok.
The junta said it had to take power to end violence linked to those protests which left nearly 30 dead and hundreds wounded. But critics say the protests were a carefully-choreographed pretext for a coup against a government which won a democratic mandate under Yingluck Shinawatra.
"Protests are completely banned at government offices, bus terminals and airports," Major General Sunsern Kaewkumnerd told reporters, adding that people who break the new rules could be jailed for up to 10 years.
Bangkok has seen several bouts of often deadly demonstrations since then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra - Yingluck's billionaire brother - shook up politics with his pro-poor popularism in 2001. Protests by royalist anti-Thaksin forces helped prod the army into a coup in 2006 to topple him.
The same anti-Thaksin forces regrouped in 2008 as "Yellow Shirts" against another Shinawatra-aligned government, blocking Bangkok's airports during the peak tourist season and prompting the declaration of a state of emergency.
The government fell after a court ruling, allowing parliament to install a royalist Democrat Party lawmaker, Abhisit Vejjajiva, as prime minister. But his administration was also soon besieged by street rallies. In spring 2010 pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts" took over key intersections in Bangkok, culminating in a bloody crackdown by the army which left scores dead and hundreds wounded in the city's commercial heart.