Covid-19 keeps a lid on protest turnout in Thailand but violence is escalating

A demonstrator uses a racket against a tear gas canister during a protest in Bangkok on Aug 13, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - The risk of Covid-19 has kept a lid on turnout as street protests return in Thailand but political observers believe protest groups still lack unity, with differing demands and goals, which make it hard for them to have any impact.

But the level of violence has escalated.

In the last few clashes, some demonstrators wielded slingshots and home-made bombs, while security forces fired tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. This has resulted in dozens of injuries and arrests.

The Bangkok police insist that their approach to the protests is in line with the law, while the authorities have issued a warning that the military is "on call" should the situation get out of hand.

"If there is army intervention of this sort, it could pave the way to more martial law - an auto-coup. I think that (the authorities) are starting to feel tired of these demonstrations and they want to snuff them out now," said Dr Paul Chambers of Naresuan University's Centre of Asean Community Studies.

The use of tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to counter the protests is not new, but some political analysts such as Dr Punchada Sirivunnabood say authorities seem to have resorted to them sooner this time around.

"Police are using more violence to control the crowds. They seem more aggressive especially because some protesters have attempted to march to places like the Royal Palace and the Prime Minister's residence," said Dr Punchada.

Assistant Professor Wanwichit Boonprong, a political scientist at Rangsit University, said one factor that could have contributed to the increased violence might be the Covid-19 rules that ban large gatherings.

"Protesters have ignored the anti-virus rules and police might see the need to increase the use of force," he said.

Last year, the youth-led "Ratsadon" movement broke long-held taboos by demanding among other things, reforms to Thailand's monarchy. But the movement lost steam after Covid-19 hit and key protest leaders were detained.

The protests are back with renewed calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and demands for reform to the constitution and monarchy.

The pandemic has also become a new flashpoint for the protesters as public frustration grows in parallel with the deteriorating Covid-19 situation.

A pro-democracy protester using a slingshot against police during a demonstration in Bangkok on Aug 13, 2021.

Thailand has been hit by a resurgence in Covid-19 cases since April, logging about 20,000 new cases and over 100 deaths almost daily. There have also been issues with the supply and procurement of vaccines and only about 7 per cent of its over 70 million population has been fully vaccinated.

Observers say the protesters have latched onto public anger and their demands related to the economic fallout of Covid-19 as well as the desire for faster vaccine rollouts and more effective jabs, is something that resonates with the majority.

Interestingly, some street rallies have adapted to Covid-19 social distancing measures in the form of car mobs, where people protest from vehicles instead of on foot.

This has given people a way to support the movement while reducing the risk of Covid-19, said King Prajadhipok's Institute political scientist Stithorn Thananithichot.

"Those who want to join will either turn to social media to protest, or join the car mobs," he said, adding that some might not want to join the protests on foot as they will want to avoid the possibility of violence.

This year's demonstrations have also been notable because former activists in the red and yellow shirt protests of yesteryear - who were then in opposing camps for and against former Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra - have also thrown their weight behind the protests.

One former royalist activist, Mr Tanat "Nat" Thanakitamnuay, who once led rallies in support of the current government, now backs calls for leadership change.

"I still believe in the same thing, I do not accept a corrupt and incompetent government. It's very clear today we have the worst of the worst," said Mr Tanat, 29, during a dialogue with the Foreign Correspondent' Club of Thailand (FCCT) this week, explaining the change of heart.

On Friday (Aug 13), another protest took place at the Victory Monument and police again fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the protesters. More demonstrations are planned in the coming days.

Dr Punchada said the protests would continue until something "big" happens.

"It could be the resignation of the prime minister - which I think is unlikely - or maybe the dissolving of Parliament," she said.

"Once the situation gets better, I expect more people to come out," she said.

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