Thai police on Sunday deployed rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon against protesters who defied Covid-19 restrictions to call for Premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha's resignation and mark the anniversary of a pro-democracy movement.
The kingdom is currently battling its worst Covid-19 wave, registering daily case records as hospitals buckle under pressure.
Exacerbating the toll has been the government’s slow procurement of vaccines, which has drawn criticism as Thailand’s economy reels from increasingly severe restrictions.
Defying rules prohibiting gatherings of more than five people, protesters piled mock body bags flecked with red paint near Bangkok’s Democracy Monument.
“We will die from Covid if we stay home, that is why we have to come out,” shouted a protest organiser, who listed three demands.
“Prayut Chan-O-Cha must resign without any condition; the second is a budget cut to the monarchy and army to be used against Covid, and the third is to bring in mRNA vaccine.”
A giant banner with a picture of Prayut — the mastermind of a 2014 coup — was unfurled on the road, with protesters then stomping on his face.
As they marched on the Government House, protesters led by a frontline group wearing gas masks and hard hats were joined by motorbike drivers who hoisted the mock body bags.
But authorities deployed water cannon early and blocked the main road, forcing protesters to retreat.
Police also fired rubber bullets and tear gas, scattering the protesters, according to AFP reporters on the ground.
About 700 metres from the Government House, they stood off against dozens of riot police, using slingshots to fling projectiles and firecrackers at them.
They also set fire to the mock body bags, flashing a three-finger salute — the movement’s symbol of resistance — as they sang Les Miserables’ “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
By sunset, as the smouldering fire mixed with the tear gas and smoke grenades fired by authorities, the protest organisers called off the rally — though some stragglers remained.
Authorities defended their actions, saying that warnings were issued before any tear gas, water canon or rubber bullets were fired, and that eight police officers were injured.
“Most of the protesters violated the emergency decree and the disease control act,” said Piya Tawichai, the Metropolitan Police Bureau spokesman, adding that legal action will come.
An emergency service centre reported that two protesters suffered injuries — one in the eye and another from tear gas.
‘Wake up and work for your people’
Exactly one year ago, thousands of protesters amassed at the Democracy Monument calling for Prayut’s resignation, the rewriting of the constitution and reforms to the kingdom’s long-unassailable monarchy.
Prayut had managed to hold onto power after 2019 elections — which were held under an army-scripted constitution — while popular opposition figures were increasingly hit with legal troubles.
That protest marked the beginning of a movement that has widened the discourse on taboo topics, including the role of the royal family — protected under a draconian defamation law.
But as the impact of Covid-19 rapidly chipped away at Thailand’s economy, the government’s handling of the pandemic has become one of the movement’s main grievances.
Acclaimed Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul also highlighted the country’s situation on Saturday during his acceptance speech for the jury prize at Cannes for “Memoria”.
“Many of them suffer greatly from the pandemic with the mismanagement of resources, of health care and vaccine accessibility,” he said.
“I want to call out for the Thai and Colombian government (where ‘Memoria’ was filmed)… to please wake up and work for your people now.”
Thailand currently has more than 403,000 cases and a death toll of 3,341. Sunday saw a single-day record in new infections — more than 11,000 — while Saturday brought a new high in deaths with 141 dead.
Starting Tuesday, three more provinces will be placed under severe restrictions — including a night-time curfew and a ban on gatherings of more than five — that already cover Bangkok and nine other provinces.