Dispatch

Thailand’s Protests Are Turning Dangerously Violent

Brutal police responses have prompted a shift in once-peaceful movements.

By , a journalist in Thailand.
A tear-gassed protester in Thailand
A protester receives eyewash after being tear-gassed by riot police in Bangkkok on Aug. 15. Sirachai Arunrugstichai/Getty Images

BANGKOK—Thailand’s mass protests in August 2020 had an almost festival atmosphere. Students-turned-celebrities gave rousing speeches for monarchical reform. Smaller protest groups broadened beyond the fight for democracy to stand up for liberal causes such as LGBT rights. A public cautious about COVID-19 nevertheless took to the streets with confidence.

A year later, violence is daily. Riot cops are quick to tear-gas sitting activists. Police boxes around the city have been destroyed as roving groups on scooters harass street cops firing rubber bullets. Celebrity protesters languish in detention and face potential sentences of a century or more. Protesters march even though Thailand has gone from a handful of COVID-19 cases to more than 20,000 a day, with only around 8 percent of Thailand fully vaccinated.

The initial spark for the protests was the forced dissolution of the opposition Future Forward Party in February 2020, but they quickly became about corruption, the junta, and the country’s infamous lèse-majesté law, which bans criticism of the monarchy and has been increasingly weaponized against opposition politicians of all stripes. Although the Thai junta nominally restored democracy in 2019 following their coup five years earlier, the military remains powerfully in control. Former army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha, who led the coup, is now prime minister.

BANGKOK—Thailand’s mass protests in August 2020 had an almost festival atmosphere. Students-turned-celebrities gave rousing speeches for monarchical reform. Smaller protest groups broadened beyond the fight for democracy to stand up for liberal causes such as LGBT rights. A public cautious about COVID-19 nevertheless took to the streets with confidence.

A year later, violence is daily. Riot cops are quick to tear-gas sitting activists. Police boxes around the city have been destroyed as roving groups on scooters harass street cops firing rubber bullets. Celebrity protesters languish in detention and face potential sentences of a century or more. Protesters march even though Thailand has gone from a handful of COVID-19 cases to more than 20,000 a day, with only around 8 percent of Thailand fully vaccinated.

The initial spark for the protests was the forced dissolution of the opposition Future Forward Party in February 2020, but they quickly became about corruption, the junta, and the country’s infamous lèse-majesté law, which bans criticism of the monarchy and has been increasingly weaponized against opposition politicians of all stripes. Although the Thai junta nominally restored democracy in 2019 following their coup five years earlier, the military remains powerfully in control. Former army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha, who led the coup, is now prime minister.

After election losses in late 2020 in provincial areas where liberal causes popular in the capital carry less weight, the protest movement seemed to lose steam, only to be resurrected in the wake of a rampaging delta variant of the coronavirus. The disappointing vaccine rollout has centered around the Sinovac shot, which has been seen as ineffective, and the AstraZeneca one, the locally produced answer for the region marred by accusations of corruption. While some protesters hold banners critical of the government, others hold cardboard signs reading “Pfizer.”

The protest movement has seen a number of flash points—from quarantine defiance to water cannons and rubber duckies—but the protests and the retaliatory violence continue to escalate. A chaotic mixture of organizers and groups now compete for attention. Sometimes followers of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra known as the red shirts will drive around the city honking their horns in what’s referred to as a car mob. Sometimes the student-led Free Youth will pursue more aggressive tactics. And for the last week, Din Daeng intersection has seen nightly clashes with police, even as the wider protest movement encourages nonviolence. The intersection, a major roadway in the heart of Bangkok, has become synonymous with protest and police violence.

On Monday, Aug. 16, the protest group Thalufah, a broad and aggressive pro-democracy group, attempted to march on Prayut’s front door at the 1st Infantry Regiment barracks. A weaving horde of thousands of flag-waving demonstrators on scooters, in cars, and even on skateboards braved Thailand’s worst COVID-19 outbreak yet to gather at Victory Monument, a popular starting point for protests that has multiple possible nearby targets for marches. In a last-minute change of plans as riot cops gathered, the protesters marched nearly 2.5 miles to Government House, the offices of the prime minister and his cabinet.

The march began with only a small crowd, but it grew as it progressed, with organizers on hand with angry placards, displays, and performances. Mock bodies were laid out at Victory Monument covered in fake blood. As a protester painted “Police = Violence” on the concrete in front of the monument, Thalufah members set the fake bodies on fire and began their march.

Going past scores of shuttered shops, onlookers flashed the familiar three-finger salute from The Hunger Games, which has been a signature of the Thai protest movement for years. The week before the march, police seized more than 100 motorcycles and scooters whose owners were suspected of playing a role in the protests, so many activists had covered their vehicles’ license plates with face masks and tape.

Blocked by shipping containers put out as barriers and arriving at a line of barbed wire and riot police, protesters raised their hands in the air to show they carried no weapons and then sat in front of the barbed wire. Speeches were read out and the protesters—all of whom were breaking an ordinance against gatherings in public—asked that the government resign. It didn’t.

At around 5:50 p.m., flash-bangs rang out over the crowd, and tear gas was fired. The protesters retreated to rally briefly, destroying or defacing police boxes for over a mile along nearby roads using paint, motorcycle helmets, slingshots, and explosives.

At the end of the night, one protester was in a coma after being shot with a suspected live round, and two others, one a 14-year-old, were also shot; police deny using live rounds. Less than 12 months ago, the mass protests would end with comedy routines and musical performances.

More violence and curfew-breaking would follow on Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday saw activism and peaceful protests at Democracy Monument; by nightfall, motorbike riders descended on Din Daeng intersection to clash with police. On Friday, a peaceful car mob drove to the Swiss, U.S., and Chinese embassies honking and waving flags, but the protest finished in violence again at Din Daeng with rubber bullets and tear gas met by improvised ping-pong bombs from protesters. Similar clashes continued through the weekend.

The protest groups have often diverged, even planning competing events around the city. Splits over political parties, opinions on the lèse-majesté law, and even socialist messaging have caused internecine squabbles.

Major protests do see older people, such as the red shirts who supported the ousted prime minister after the 2006 coup, join with younger, generally more liberal protesters in shared opposition to the junta. But while relatively mainstream groups such as Free Youth and Thalufah have openly confronted police in the past, the protesters seeking clashes often start at the nonviolent protests and then regroup to harass police.

While the desperation from the COVID-19 pandemic is often blamed for the escalating protests, protesters say their switch in tactics is prompted by the police’s increasingly aggressive response.

“Arresting and tear gas, rubber bullets,” one protester said on Aug. 16, asking for anonymity. “What about us? We protest peacefully. … What can we do?”

Tyler Roney is a journalist in Thailand.

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