Dispatch

Thai Protesters Claim a Temporary Victory

Both the government and demonstrators are borrowing tactics from Hong Kong.

A protester gives the three-finger salute at a rally outside Nonthaburi police station in Bangkok on Oct. 19.
A protester gives the three-finger salute at a rally outside Nonthaburi police station in Bangkok on Oct. 19. Getty Images

BANGKOK—In a hard-fought weekend, Thailand’s pro-democracy protesters stuck to the streets of Bangkok, despite the government’s best efforts to shift them with methods including water cannons and media propaganda.

Riot police fired water cannons and water-based irritants on pro-democracy protesters on Friday in harrowing scenes that saw the largely peaceful protesters in defiance of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s emergency decree. But that show of force has been met with mass protests in Bangkok in the days since, with protesters drawing inspiration from last year’s Hong Kong demonstrations—and the authorities from the Hong Kong government’s responses.

“Do they think we will go? No, tomorrow, more tomorrow,” a tattoo artist and protester who asked to be referred to as Tad said on Friday after being routed by riot police and water cannons. When asked where the next protests would be, he smiled. “We don’t know, they don’t know.”

One lone man sat trying to make brick barricades, as seen in the Hong Kong protests to prevent vehicles from advancing, but it was of little use. The police had taken the area, and the few remaining straggling, soaking-wet protesters made their way to Chulalongkorn University for sanctuary and escape.

The protesters want the resignation of the prime minister, monarchical reform, and a new constitution. The government has reacted fiercely, with a contentious state of emergency declared and a capricious spate of arrests.

After the violent breakup of the Friday protests at the National Stadium—which saw hundreds of riot police lining the area from the National Stadium to Siam Station—protest leaders decided that future protest sites would be released just prior to the event. Every day, a new hashtag now rises for the latest protest location: Oct. 17 mob, Oct. 18 mob, Oct. 19 mob.

For Saturday, the protests were planned for Lao Phrao intersection and Udomsuk and Wongwian Yai stations, more than 7 miles away from the city center. In response, almost before the protests began, the government forced the Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS) and the city’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) to cease all operations, paralyzing Bangkok’s entire public transport network. That, too, was a lesson taken from Hong Kong, where the city government shut down the metro system.

But tens of thousands of protesters showed up, undeterred by the stoppages, in a firm rebuke to the military government’s tactics. Protests continued at Victory Monument and in the Asoke area downtown on Monday, filling the streets with multicolored ponchos and umbrellas.

The protest leader Mike Rayong was arrested by undercover police on Saturday, following dozens of others including reporters and front-line doctors, so the Sunday protests were largely leaderless, without microphones or speeches at Victory Monument until after nightfall. Instead, protesters chanted at random and sang.

In a major shift from just three days ago, the Thailand pro-democracy protests now have front-line protesters, drawing on the organization shown in Hong Kong. At Victory Monument on Sunday, protesters handed out plastic-covered hard hats to an ad hoc front-line barricade. Demonstrators in multicolored ponchos formed an assembly line to move bottled water to the protesters nearer to the monument.

“Yes, the Milk Tea Alliance … teaches us,” said one front-line protester on Sunday, wishing to remain anonymous, in reference to the online alliance between Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand in promoting democracy. He tapped his hard hat with an umbrella. “We are careful today.”

A few front-line leaders demonstrated how to physically hold up fellow protesters when encountering riot police; others milled about taking selfies. That was a defiant gesture, not a narcissistic one: The government has also announced “selfie rules,” stating that taking selfies at a protest incites others to join and could be construed as a breach of the state of emergency regulations punishable by 40,000 baht (about $1,200) and/or two years in prison.

In the plush downtown district of Asoke, near the BTS and MRT stations there, the protesters linked arms.

The riot police and water cannons would never show.

The jubilant atmosphere marred by the state violence of the Friday protests had returned on Sunday. Businesses were open, and people had sushi and 7/11 snacks just yards away from the protest’s front line at Victory Monument. Motorcycle taxis, the unsung heroes of these mobile protests, rode in on their scooters waving the three-finger salute, taken from the Hunger Games series, that has become another symbol of defiance.

There is little chance Prayuth and his government will back down, given the militarized machismo that has fueled the authorities so far. In a somewhat more conciliatory approach to the protests after days of having the emergency decree flouted, a spokesperson on Sunday quoted the prime minister as saying, “The government is willing to listen to everyone’s problems and continues to solve problems in all areas.”

When asked after Friday’s crackdown whether he was worried about the protesters possibly using the “Hong Kong model,” Prayuth said, “What a media question! So how is the Hong Kong model today? Hong Kong is damaged. Businesses are all damaged. Everything is devastated. And how are the protesters? … But don’t forget that they are a democratic society—we are democratic.”

The military government, unable to control the streets, has turned its attention to the media. Monday saw the government issue an order to censor four local media organizations: Voice TV, the Facebook-based Reporters news agency, the Standard, and Prachatai, as well as the protest group Free Youth. The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission claims that they created misleading information affecting national stability.

A Prachatai reporter, Kitti Pantapak, was arrested Friday and released after paying a fine of 300 baht ($9.61). “The arrest, albeit temporary, of a Thai journalist on Friday night highlights the new risks for media in covering events. The FCCT urges the authorities to respect the role and responsibilities of all media in Thailand,” the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand said in a statement.

Since Thursday last week, a white screen with the words “Program will resume shortly” appears on television screens around the country when the protests are addressed on CNN, BBC, and others—censored by the Thai broadcaster True Visions.

On Sunday, Thailand’s English-language Bangkok Post ran a front-page story saying the shutdown of transport was a tactic from the protesters, later retracting the story saying it was a mistake made during editing.

Companies’ complacency in the government’s crackdown has not gone unnoticed. BTS Group Holdings showed a nearly 4 percent drop on Thailand’s benchmark stock index on Monday, which is a likely result of the public transport giant’s willingness to stop services to quash the protests at the government’s behest. Some protesters have left dog food at local train stations for the so-called “loyal pets” of the military government.

Sadly for the government, its problems are no longer confined to Bangkok. Cities and universities around the country have been standing in solidarity with the Bangkok protesters, with shouts of “Prayuth get out!” ringing from Chiang Mai in the north to Khon Kaen in Thailand’s eastern heartland.

It is unclear how the media blackout orders will take effect, as those violating them now face the same prospect of arrest as the protest leaders. Similarly, the government has moved to shut down the messaging app Telegram in Thailand and raided the Same Sky Books publishing house.

For Monday’s demonstrations, the daily mob of thousands of protesters went to Kaset in north Bangkok led by Sirawith Seritiwat. Protesters are waiting on where Tuesday’s will be held—and Wednesday’s and many more likely to come.

Tyler Roney is a journalist in Thailand.

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