t least two major political dynamics have emerged as a result of the spread of COVID-19 in Thailand since early 2020. First is the Thai government’s excessive use of a COVID-19 emergency decree to limit and suppress political protests through arrests and criminalization of protesters. Second is the growing militant stance of a particular group of protesters, who are younger than their peers and come from humble backgrounds.
From any angle, these two developments make for a very combustible situation. On one side is a formidable power desperate to remain in control by any means possible. On the other side is a group of youngsters now so full of frustration that they believe they have nothing to lose.
Already, clashes between protesters and the police have turned particularly nasty. In the past weeks alone, at least two protesters and one riot police suffered shots in the head in separate incidents. Two other protesters were hit by hard objects; each has lost sight in one eye.
Some observers say that the new group of protesters is far too ready to match violence with violence. But others point out that the youngsters are still no match for the police, who have been known to use tear gas, water cannons, batons, and guns loaded with rubber bullets even on peaceful protesters. There have even been allegations that the police have used live ammunition against protesters, leading to children being among those seriously injured.
One of them was a 15-year-old boy who was shot near the Din Daeng police station during the protests in August. He was brought to the hospital and fell into a coma. The young man died on Oct. 28.
As of mid-October 2021, the COVID-19-related emergency decree, formally known as the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation, has already been in effect for over a year and a half. The fact that hundreds of monarchy-reform and anti-government protesters have been arrested under this decree — which can have each of them facing a maximum jail term of two years and/or fine of up to THB 40,000 (US$1,280) — can only be seen as proof that it has been conveniently used to suppress street protests.
In a recent conversation with the Asia Democracy Chronicles (ADC), lawyer Yaowalak Anuphan said that since March last year, at least 821 protesters have been arrested for violating the emergency decree’s ban on public gatherings. Yaowalak heads the pro-bono Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group, which provides political protesters legal representation and counsel. She told ADC that the total number of arrests so far is actually 960, but some of those arrested were repeat offenders. About 81 percent (777) of these arrests were done without a court warrant. And of the 149 protesters arrested for breaking the COVID-19 curfew, 68 were slapped with fines.
A letter and a court injunction
In an open letter dated Sept. 1, 2021 and addressed to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, 13 organizations — among them Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Article 19 — expressed concern about the right to peaceful political assembly in Thailand. The organizations also noted that since July 2020, more than 700 people, including 130 children, have been investigated in connection with political protests. In Thailand, a minor who is arrested can well end up spending a night or more inside a regular detention cell. Anyone under 18 who receives a jail sentence is sent to the Children’s Behavioral Control Facility.
“The threat to public health posed by the COVID-19 pandemic may justify narrow restrictions on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, but such restrictions must meet the requirement of legality, necessity, and proportionality under international human rights law,” the rights organizations’ letter read in part. “In assessing whether a measure is necessary and proportional to a legitimate aim, consideration should be given to whether the measure in question is the least intrusive means of achieving that aim.”
“State authorities may only disperse assemblies when ‘strictly unavoidable,’ such as when there is clear evidence of an imminent threat of serious violence that cannot be dealt with by targeted arrests or other less drastic actions,” the letter also said. “Before dispersing a crowd, law enforcement officers must take all reasonable measures to enable the assembly by providing a safe environment. Even if some protesters act violently, all those involved retain all their rights under the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights], including, of course, the right to life and protection against arbitrary detention.”
In truth, authorities had attempted to stifle free speech as well by citing the COVID-19 “emergency.” But this proved less successful.
On July 29, 2021, the government issued Regulation No. 29, citing its emergency power. The new regulation empowered the authorities to censor online expression and to investigate and prosecute anyone deemed responsible for communications that may “cause fear” and “mislead understanding of the emergency situation to the extent of affecting security of state or public order or good morals of the people.” Too, even if the content is factual, one could still be liable for writing or spreading it if it causes panic and is deemed to affect national security.
Observers quickly noted that the terms used in the regulation were vague and open to abuse. In any case, such communications were deemed crimes under the emergency decree and were thus also punishable by a maximum imprisonment term of two years and/or a fine of THB 40,000 (US$1,280).
Weeks after the regulation was announced, however, the Human Rights Lawyer Alliances and 12 media companies submitted to the Civil Court a petition to revoke it. On Aug. 6, the Court issued an injunction, saying that such power is not permitted even under the imposition of the emergency decree.
The young and the furious
For sure, that slight setback, at least for Thai authorities, has not made the government less determined to clamp down on protesters. But its stubborn attempts to normalize control over political opposition — under the cover of managing the pandemic — have since come head to head with the growing fury of a new and younger group of political protesters.
Indeed, while the university students who have been the staple of anti-government protests in Thailand since 2019 still appear on the streets demanding reforms in the monarchy, including the abolition of the lese majeste law, many of them have been veering away from Bangkok’s Din Daeng district, where these protesters reign supreme.
Din Daeng, which happens to be near the residence of the prime minister, hosts a working-class community. Since last August, young protesters, many of whom are from the area, have been converging at a particular intersection there almost every night, well beyond curfew, and inevitably clash with riot police. (Beginning Oct. 1, the curfew has been from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., just an hour shorter than the previous period of 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.)
Now collectively known as Thalugaz (shattering the teargas), these protesters are not organized hierarchically and have no leadership. Most of them are teenagers, but there are often schoolchildren among them. In fact, the youngest protester arrested at Din Daeng so far is just 11 years old.
Some Facebook and Twitter accounts have emerged and tried to raise funds supposedly for these protesters, claiming to be their “facilitators.” These claims have yet to be verified by the protesters themselves. The one thing that is clear, however, is their demand: the immediate resignation of the prime minister, who they believe has mishandled Thailand’s pandemic response and put their families in jeopardy.
Speaking to ADC at Din Daeng, some of the Thalugaz protesters talked about the economic crisis created by the pandemic and how it has affected their part-time work. One teenager said that he had lost his job at a convenience store while his fellow protesters said that they had little hope for better job prospects given the situation. They all said that economic hardship was weighing down their families.
The youngsters said that their education has suffered a negative impact as well, as they had been unable to attend school because of the lockdowns. Said one teenager, “I just want my old life back.”
It’s a sentiment that would surely resonate with many Thais. What has not won these youthful protesters much public sympathy, however, is their readiness to confront riot police, on whom they have used Molotov cocktails, slingshots with glass marbles and metal bolts, fireworks, and even home-made explosives.
Every time they clash, each side has blamed the other for starting it. Political observers, meanwhile, are at a loss over whether or not groups of youngsters defiantly violating the curfew and later on battling with police can be called “violent protesters.”
The teenagers themselves seem too embittered and fed up to care what others think about them. With or without public support, they are likely to adhere to their militant tactics.
To an ex-general — who has even used a pandemic to serve his own political agenda — bowing to their will is obviously something that will never happen. But ignoring the grievances of those who are supposed to be part of the country’s future can be dangerous for Thailand. ●
Pravit Rojanaphruk, a long-time advocate of press freedom, is a columnist and senior staff writer at Khaosod English.