Rage over Govt’s Covid Failure Fuels Violent Turn in Thai Protests

Nontarat Phaicharoen
Bangkok
2021-08-18
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Rage over Govt’s Covid Failure Fuels Violent Turn in Thai Protests A police detention truck burns after being set on fire during an anti-government protest in Bangkok, August 7, 2021.
(Laila Tahe/BenarNews)

Anti-government street protests in Bangkok are “no longer the same,” organizers and experts say, as Thailand’s failure to handle the COVID-19 pandemic has ignited increasingly violent demonstrations against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha.

Through largely peaceful protests that began in July 2020, the protesters have called on Prayuth to step down, for the constitution to be rewritten, and for the monarchy to be reformed. Many of the activist leaders who spearhead the demonstrations have been arrested and charged with Lese-Majeste, a royal defamation law.

But in recent weeks, pro-democracy protests have morphed into demonstrations with a more violent undercurrent, reflecting widespread anger at the government’s perceived botched handling of the pandemic and slow vaccine rollout.

The rallies in August are no longer the same … Since August 7, the government has taken more drastic measures, and the protesters have responded in parallel,” Piyarat Chongthep or Toto” from WeVo (We Volunteer), a loosely-formed protest group, told BenarNews.

He said there will be more clashes … since many people are ready to clash.” The government might take stricter measures to quash the protests, including the possible announcement of martial law and use of real ammunition, he said.

During the rallies lately, the young anti-government demonstrators have clashed frequently with riot police. 

A Thai teen has been in a coma since Monday after being shot in the neck during a fracas. Bangkok Police insist that no live ammunition was fired.

The police have used water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to quell recent demonstrations, while agitators have fired slingshots, and thrown glass bottles and rocks at the police. On occasion, some protesters have set fire to vehicles and public property.

The protesters have come out this time because they fear starving to death,” Toto said. They were more afraid of Prayuth continuing to stay on than being infected with COVID.”

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Firecrackers explode as protesters gather in front of shipping containers placed by the police to impede their progress during a demonstration in Bangkok, Aug. 15, 2021. [AFP]

Earlier, Thailand was seen as an excellent example of how to handle a pandemic because, through much of 2020, Thai authorities succeeded in keeping infections relatively low compared with other countries in Southeast Asia.

But the government’s failure to secure adequate vaccine supplies saw the third wave of COVID-19 sweep across Thailand since April, especially after the outbreak of the far more contagious Delta variant.

Only 8.1 percent of Thailand’s 66 million population are fully vaccinated so far, according to the national anti-COVID taskforce, and the number of new cases has been skyrocketing each day for the past two months. Hospitals are filling up, and authorities have been scrambling to set up temporary isolation wards in airport terminals and railway carriages.

Last month, many Thais were horrified to see images of people who had died on the streets of the capital while awaiting medical care.

On Wednesday, the death toll hit the new highest daily record with 312 fatalities, according to the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA). On the same day, as he extended pandemic-related restrictions on businesses and overnight curfews until the end of August, Prayuth said that he was sad that people were severely impacted by COVID-19.

I feel the pain of you all, those who lost their business, jobs, and loved ones because of COVID. I am saddened. It serves as a reminder to myself to do better,” Prayuth, a former army and junta chief, said on his Facebook page.

Bonfire of grievances

Sombat Boonngamanong, an activist who started the car rallies” – where motorists honk, chant, unfurl posters as they drive through some streets in Bangkok to avoid pandemic restrictions – said the current protests were a product of a great crisis of faith in the government.”

The people in the movement now are different. Last year was purely a political issue. This year, there was a problem with COVID and the economy, along with political problems,” Sombat told BenarNews. 

The accumulation of issues makes the bonfire bigger,” he said, adding the Thai people clearly sees that the government cannot manage the COVID situation.”

This time, many frontline protesters are largely underprivileged, urban poor who have been hit hardest by the pandemic, Human Rights Watch said in a dispatch last week.

They see their suffering as caused by the authoritarian rule, cronyism, corruption, and inefficiency of the Prayuth government,” the New York-based watchdog group said.

The recent protests have also changed in spirit.

The angry and largely leaderless protesters show up for anti-government demonstrations seemingly ready to fight,” Human Rights Watch said.

The protesters no longer believe in having leaders,” Toto said because the government has managed to suppress the leaders and their guards, who provide security to the demonstrators.

Last year’s protests simmered down after several top leaders such as Arnon Nampa, Parit Penguin” Chiwarak, and Jatupat Pai” Boonpattararaksa were arrested on suspicion of royal defamation and sedition. They were released on bail, but joined a few protests and have been sent back to custody in recent days.

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A protester faces off with riot police during an anti-government demonstration near the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Aug. 7, 2021. [Laila Tahe/BenarNews]

Sombat also said the police are more aggressive than last year, with less trust between them and the protestors. He said the leaders were not able to refrain from clashing.

As for me, my first level of demand is a call for Prayuth to resign and dissolve the parliament,” he said.

Bangkok’s deputy police commissioner, Maj. Gen. Piya Tawichai, agreed that restraint was needed.

I assure you that we are still using the same measures according to international standards.

These are the same standard measures [that we used] last year,” Piya told BenarNews.

In the past, we discussed and coordinated [with the protesters] to some extent, even though the protestors may listen to us or not."

Anusorn Unno, an associate professor at Thammasat University, said the escalating violence was being carried out by independent groups using specific neighborhoods as battlefields.”

There are independent groups, free from leaders or other groups,” Anusorn told BenarNews.

They are in focus because they draw more media coverages than other forms of events such as car rallies.”

He said that among the demonstrators were many who became jobless due to the pandemic and young vocational students who tend to be more aggressive.

He said, however, that the violence would not spread all over the city because the hot-headed protesters are not organized … and have no intention to go beyond a certain limit.”

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Pro-democracy protesters hold signs during a car mob-protest calling for the resignation of Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha over the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, in Bangkok, Aug. 10, 2021. [AFP]

According to Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University, the government’s more violent approach reflects that they are not confident in its stability.”

At the same time, some of the demonstrators themselves are more violent. But that should not be an excuse for the government to use violence.”

The government should be listening to the demands, but instead of that, they use the same approach as they did [when they were a junta], which is only to suppress the protests.”

Meanwhile, retired Lt. Gen. Nanthadej Meksawat, a security expert, warned the government to restrain itself.

The situation has been escalating with vandalism, arson of police posts, a police car and clashes with riot police,” he told BenarNews.

It is possible that the protesters would keep pressuring the police to cause someone to die and use the death for their political gain.”

He said authorities must be careful, and the government must take a defensive approach.”

Subel Rai Bhandari contributed to this report from Kathmandu.

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