“Everything has now exploded”: On the streets with Thailand’s protesters | Thailand
E.Just days after finishing his online college courses, Chai * is preparing to join the protests in Bangkok. He uses a headscarf to cover his face, material to cover his motorcycle license plate, a helmet and often a table tennis bomb.
The self-made device, in which stones are wrapped in fireworks powder, is either thrown at the police as a provocation or used as a distraction when he and his friends are followed by officers.
“We have no choice, we have to get out; my family is suffering, ”says 19-year-old Chai. As he speaks, the crack of fireworks and table tennis bombs echoes from a nearby underpass. Further along the roadside, clouds of black smoke rise from burning tires.
It is located at Din Daeng intersection, the site of a leaderless teenage uprising that is calling for a range of issues ranging from democratic reforms to the coronavirus. For more than a month, the area has been transformed into a battlefield, with nightly clashes between young protesters, mostly students from vocational schools and poor neighborhoods, and the police, who routinely fire rubber bullets and tear gas.
Chai’s mother and father, a grocer and an electrician, respectively, have both lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Chai says he was also forced to quit his part-time job because his college course was rescheduled online and now ends later in the day. He is training to be an electrician, but is about to drop out. One of his friends who leans against him has already done so. You are having difficulty studying from home and you say there was no support to cover internet costs.
“Everything has peaked, everything is now exploding during Covid,” says Chai. The economic situation and the administration of public funds by the state can no longer be tolerated.
Last year tens of thousands of young people took to the streets across Thailand to call for democratic reforms that aim to make the establishment more accountable and society more just. The protests, mostly led by university students, called for curbing the power and wealth of the monarchy, for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army general who first came to power through a coup, to resign, and for the constitution to be convened by army officials , should be reformed. The message was serious, but the rallies were peaceful and often had a festive atmosphere, with playful protest art and even satirical dress.
None of the protesters’ demands were met.
Instead, more than 1,000 people are charged with political activities, including at least 132 charges of lese majesty, which can lead to 15 years in prison. The main protesters have repeatedly been refused bail release.
Citizen or slave?
In Din Daeng, the demonstrators say they are no longer patient. “It’s as if they don’t see us as citizens, but as if they see us as slaves,” says Chai’s friend, who is 17 years old. Two of his family members, his aunt and uncle, died of Covid infection. “They have no connections so they had to wait and wait [for a hospital space]”He says. One of them died at home before he was properly treated. Like Chai, his family has financial problems. His mother used to work in a school canteen, but it closed. Instead, she sells street food and makes less money.”
Although Thailand managed to contain Covid in 2020, it has seen its worst wave in recent months after the cases quickly spread to slums, factories and prisons. The vaccination process was slow and chaotic. Those who could afford it flew abroad to get vaccines; if you can’t, you have to wait until it’s your turn. Chai’s father was vaccinated, but his mother has yet to be vaccinated.
Prior to Covid, vocational students fought over college rivalries rather than shoulder to shoulder, say Chai and his friends. Now, unlike Prayuth, they are united. Before gathering, they’ll explore where police checkpoints have been set up and plan possible escape routes. Their motto is: “Come together, go back together”.
Their demands remain the same as those of the demonstrators last year. “If Prayuth resigned, maybe everything could get better,” says one of the teenagers.
Some criticize the protesters for engaging in clashes with the police, argue that they cause trouble, undermine larger protests or legitimize the use of force by the authorities.
While both protesters and police officers have been injured, human rights groups warn that the police are excessive and indiscriminate. Earlier this month, 13 organizations wrote to the Prime Minister to express their concerns about the police response.
Videos shared on social media appear to show police firing rubber bullets at protesters on motorcycles, including up close. In one clip, a police car hits a protester who falls to the ground before driving off; Police later said the van was being followed by protesters. In another incident in August, three teenagers were shot dead with live ammunition and one boy was in a coma.
Police say their use of force is in accordance with the law and deny using live ammunition.
“Many of them lost their parents to Covid”
Prajak Kongkirati, professor in the Political Science Faculty of Thammasat University, says the protesters’ confrontational tactics are driven by anger and frustration at the lack of reform, the leaderless nature of gatherings and, in some cases, the belief that they are driven by provocation they will “show the police how brutal the police and the current regime are”.
“They see the police as part of the system that oppresses them and their families,” he says.
The attitude towards Thailand’s youth protests, which have broken a deeply rooted taboo by calling for a monarchy reform, is polarized. Protesters say some Din Daeng residents have offered shelter and protected them from the police; others apparently reported them to the authorities. Some just have enough of the noisy crashes and the resulting damage to property.
Many sections of the Thai public, even if they do not approve of their tactics, are increasingly compassionate as more is known about the protesters and their backgrounds, says Prajak. “They are under 18 years old, some are only 13 or 14 years old … Many of them have lost their parents to Covid, many of their parents have lost their jobs, so they had to give up training,” he says.
The Covid outbreak caused a lull in the mass protests that swept Thailand in 2020, but rallies have increased in recent weeks. Former red shirt leaders have spearheaded “automobs” where protesters gather in their cars and on motorcycles to reduce the risk of Covid. Even members of the elite, including Tanat Thanakitamnuay, a former ultra-royalist, have supported calls for political change. At a protest in August, he lost sight in his right eye after being struck by what was believed to be a tear gas canister.
Dr. Punchada Sirivunnabood, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore says there is “a high potential for major protests after the Covid situation has improved”.
The government, Prajak adds, is faced with a dilemma over whether to lift the restrictions. The protests in Din Daeng remain small, but the reopening of the country could lead to many more young people taking to the streets. “Their ideology has not changed, their commitment to political struggle has not changed,” he says.
Chai says he will continue to protest until the government is dissolved. Police violence will not deter him or his friends. “It’ll even make us go out, we’ll get angrier,” he says. “It will be like this until Prayuth gets out.”
* Name has been changed to protect your identity
Additional coverage from Navaon Siradapuvadol