BANGKOK - Protests returned to the streets of Bangkok on Saturday (Aug 7), albeit on a smaller scale, amid growing anger at the government’s handling of the pandemic and the lack of mRNA vaccines in the national inoculation drive.
Clashes broke out as riot police repeatedly fired tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to prevent a thousand demonstrators from advancing.
Bearing red flags, the protesters, some of whom were armed with slingshots, went head to head with riot police at the Din Daeng junction in the hour-long confrontation. The crowd had earlier moved off from the Victory Monument.
The incident on Saturday followed multiple gatherings and so-called car mobs - protesters cruising around in cars and on motorcycles - in recent weeks staged by several groups, including Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s former political allies, as frustrations over Thailand’s spiralling Covid-19 situation intensified. Recent government crackdowns on those accused of lese majeste have also stoked the flames.
“If I don’t come out today to protest, I will be stuck with this government,” said one 21-year-old undergraduate who only wanted to be known by her nickname Flame.
“Covid-19 has opened my eyes to see that nothing has improved with this government,” she said.
Protest leaders also reiterated three demands listed at previous rallies. The first was for Mr Prayut to resign; second, to divert budget funds meant for the monarchy and military towards Covid-19 efforts; and lastly, for the government to use mRNA vaccines in the national inoculation drive.
The two main vaccines being administered nationwide currently are Sinovac and AstraZeneca.
Earlier plans for the protesters on Saturday to set off from the Democracy Monument were foiled as police presence grew. Organisers from the Free Youth group then changed the meeting point to the Victory Monument instead.
During the protest that ended at about 6pm, a police truck was set on fire and Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, an activist group, said at least 14 protesters were arrested.
Authorities said nearly 6,000 police officers had been deployed to ensure public order and security.
The government on Friday urged protesters to consider their safety and the safety of their family and community, and warned that protesters could be imprisoned or fined for defying Covid-19 orders that ban mass gatherings.
“I am scared of Covid-19, but I want to show my support,” said Ms Grace Teanchai, 30, a visual merchandiser.
“In the last year I’ve watched my friends lose their jobs because of Covid-19, we need to do something,” she said.
Another protester, 55-year-old importer Luksina Loke, said: “I came to support the younger generation. We have the same beliefs in democracy.”
“We want Prayut to get out, he cannot manage the country well,” said Ms Luksina who also took part in the 2010 anti-government protests led by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), also known as “Red Shirts”. The clashes, known as one of the most violent in recent history, resulted in at least 90 dead and 2,000 wounded.
On Saturday, Thailand reported 21,838 coronavirus cases and 212 deaths, both new records. This brings the country’s total to 736,522 infections and 6,066 fatalities.
In its latest efforts to crack down on anti-government protesters, the government last month charged 12 pro-democracy activists with lese majeste for an October 2020 rally outside the German embassy in Bangkok.
A large crowd had gathered there to ask Germany to look into whether King Maha Vajiralongkorn had violated its sovereignty by exercising his power on German soil.
Reuters reported that since last year, 695 protesters had been charged with crimes including sedition and causing unrest. Among those, 103 were charged with lese majeste, said the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
Meanwhile, a Thai court on Friday suspended the implementation of a government order to ban the dissemination of “false messages” and distorted news, ruling that it breached individual rights and freedom.
Issued last month, the order allowed the state regulator to block internet access and take legal action against those who distribute fake news or information that causes public fear.
Media groups had filed a petition to revoke the order after accusing the government of intending to use it to crack down on criticism over its handling of the pandemic.