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Thailand: Police Violence Against Democracy Demonstrators

Unnecessary Use of Water Cannons, Teargas; 55 Reported Injured

Democracy demonstrators take cover with inflatable ducks and umbrellas as police use water cannons during a protest rally near the parliament in Bangkok, November 17, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Wason Wanichakorn

(Bangkok) – Thai police unnecessarily used water cannons and teargas against peaceful democracy demonstrators outside the parliament in Bangkok on November 17, 2020, in violation of international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said today.

At about 2:25 p.m., police attempted to prevent a demonstration organized by the People’s Movement from reaching the parliament, where a debate on constitutional amendments, including possible reforms to the monarchy, was underway. Human Rights Watch observed crowd control units using water cannon laced with purple dye and an apparent teargas chemical, as well as teargas grenades and pepper spray grenades to disperse thousands of demonstrators, including many students. The dispersal operation continued until the demonstration ended at about 9 p.m. Protests on November 18 proceeded without violence.

On November 18, the spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres “expressed concern about the [human rights] situation in Thailand … it’s disturbing to see the repeated use of less lethal weapons against peaceful protesters, including water cannons … it’s very important that the government of Thailand refrain from the use of force and ensures the full protection of all people in Thailand who are exercising a fundamental peaceful right to protest.”

Police use water cannons to disperse democracy demonstrators near the parliament in Bangkok, November 17, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

“The Thai authorities should heed the advice of the UN Secretary-General and stop using excessive or unnecessary force against demonstrators, while preventing violence by any group so the situation doesn’t escalate out of control,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Thai authorities should promptly and impartially investigate the violence, including the alleged use of firearms by pro-government demonstrators, and prosecute all those responsible for abuses regardless of their political affiliation or rank.”

At least 55 people were injured, most from inhaling teargas, according to the Bangkok Emergency Medical Service. The injured included six democracy demonstrators who suffered gunshot wounds during a clash with pro-government ultra-royalist groups near the protests. Photos taken at the scene show that the teargas and pepper spray grenades were manufactured in the United States.

The Thai government should transparently and impartially investigate all aspects of the November 17 violence, Human Rights Watch said. This should include an inquiry into the circumstances and decision-making process for the extensive use of water cannons and teargas by the police against peaceful demonstrators. The Thai government should be clear that its rules on the use of force by law enforcement comply with international human rights standards and are strictly followed at all times.

Under the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials and other international human rights standards, law enforcement may only use force when strictly necessary and to the extent required to achieve a legitimate policing objective. The 2020 United Nations guidance on less-lethal weapons in law enforcement states that “Water cannon should only be used in situations of serious public disorder where there is a significant likelihood of loss of life, serious injury, or the widespread destruction of property.” In addition, water cannon should “not target a jet of water at an individual or group of persons at short-range owing to the risk of causing permanent blindness or secondary injuries if persons are propelled energetically by the water jet.” In line with international standards, teargas should only be employed when necessary to prevent further physical harm and should not be used to disperse nonviolent demonstrations.

The Thai government has shown increased hostility toward democracy demonstrations, which started on July 18 and later spread across the country. Demonstrators have called for the resignation of the government, the drafting of a new constitution, and an end to harassment for exercising freedom of expression. Some of the protests included demands to curb the king’s powers.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported that at least 90 protesters currently face illegal assembly charges for holding peaceful protests in Bangkok and other provinces since July. Some protest leaders have also been charged with sedition, which carries a maximum seven-year prison term, for making demands regarding reforms of the monarchy.

International human rights law, as expressed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Thailand ratified in 1996, protects the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. But Thai authorities have routinely enforced censorship and stifled public discussions about human rights, political reforms, and the monarchy’s role in society.

Over the past decade, authorities have prosecuted hundreds of activists and dissidents on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for the peaceful expression of their views. In addition, over the past six months, the authorities have used emergency measures to help control the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to ban anti-government rallies and harass pro-democracy activists.

“The Thai government should end the police crackdown on peaceful demonstrations or risk further unnecessary violence,” Adams said. “Concerned governments and the United Nations should publicly urge the Thai government to end its political repression and instead engage in dialogue on democratic reforms.”

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