Clashes in Bangkok despite plea by protest leader to supporters to refrain from violence

Veteran political activist Nattawut Saikua speaks as he urges demonstrators to head home during a protest in Bangkok, on Aug 15, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - Protesters and police clashed again on Sunday (Aug 15) in spite of a plea by a protest leader to supporters to avoid confrontation with the authorities.

A group of protesters, armed with slingshots and firecrackers, and mostly on foot or riding motorcycles, faced off against police, who fired tear gas and water cannons at around 5pm at Bangkok's Din Daeng intersection - the site of several violent clashes last week.

Amid the confrontation, red-shirt leader Nattawut Saikuar, one of the organisers of Sunday's car mob, appeared on the back of a truck to renew an appeal to protesters to refrain from violence.

"This is not in our plan today," said Mr Nattawut as some protesters gradually backed off.

Pro-democracy rallies have been heating up in recent weeks as anger mounts against the Thai government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout.

Several rallies last week - which also saw police resorting to rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds - resulted in damaged public property and dozens injured and arrested. Police insist their crowd control tactics are in line with the law.

On Sunday, demonstrations elsewhere were more peaceful.

At 6pm, those who took part in the car mob honked in unison to trumpet their demands for, among other things, the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha over his handling of the pandemic.

Convoys of cars and motorcycles had earlier roamed the streets of Bangkok in what has become known as a car mob rally, allowing people to protest from inside their vehicles instead of on foot. Similar demonstrations took place in Chanthaburi and Chiang Mai.

Mr Nattawut spoke to a crowd at the Ratchaprasong intersection, before the vehicles set off.

"We don't want Prayut to continue as prime minister. He cannot solve the Covid-19 crisis and is buying time. We cannot accept this," he said.

Mr Nattawut also asked protesters to avoid confrontation with the police, saying that it was not beneficial to the cause if they were involved in violence.

Protesters make the three-finger salute as they gather for a demonstration in Bangkok, on Aug 15, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Bangkok and other provinces with the highest risk of Covid-19 infection are under a night curfew, and the rallies have defied official restrictions that prevent gatherings of more than five people.

Some of those who turned up on Sunday to protest like Mr Patrickpol Khenda, 30, believe the car mob reduces the risk of violence and virus transmission.

"Why is it so hard for the government to administer vaccines and conduct Covid-19 testing properly?" said the sales executive who lost a friend to the coronavirus recently.

But he was also concerned with the escalating violence at protests.

"I can only hope for no blood, no injury," he said.

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Mr Patrickpol Khenda believes the protest format will reduce violence and virus transmission. ST PHOTO: TAN TAM MEI

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 eight per cent of the 70 million population have been fully vaccinated.

The Bangkok metropolitan area and other provinces have been under strict Covid-19 rules since July, but infections continue to climb.

A Covid-19 task force, chaired by Mr Prayut, is expected to review the measures on Monday (Aug 16).

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