Thai people are once again taking to the streets despite a new Covid-19 outbreak throwing the country into lockdown. This time, confrontations between protesters and the police are growing increasingly violent.
Gone are the familiar images of the youth and middle class-led democracy uprising of last year, with its iconic three-finger salute, calling for Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha to step down and a new democratic constitution with reforms to the monarchy. Now, frontline protesters are largely underprivileged, urban poor who have been hit hardest by the pandemic. They see their suffering as caused by the authoritarian rule, cronyism, corruption, and inefficiency of the Prayut government.
In April, the government announced a plan to provide vaccines for 70 percent of Thailand’s 65 million people by the end of the year. Currently, 26 percent have received one dose, and 7.4 percent are fully vaccinated. Hospitals are rapidly filling up. Supplies of life-saving Favipiravir medicine and oxygen, among other things, are running low and becoming prohibitively expensive. Unemployment is rising as the lockdown takes hold, and more businesses are closing for good. Government remedies for the devastating economic impacts of the pandemic have proven inadequate.
The angry and largely leaderless protesters show up for anti-government demonstrations seemingly ready to fight.
The Prayut government has demonstrated no interest in hearing out the protesters. The authorities seem intent on preventing street protests from gaining momentum and spreading across the country as happened last year. While the authorities claim to follow international standards for crowd control, in practice the police have routinely used excessive force against protesters.
Scores of protesters have been arrested. Several leaders of the democracy movements, such as prominent human rights lawyer Arnon Nampha and student activist Parit Chiwarak, have been put in pretrial detention, where they could remain for years. Meanwhile, the authorities pile new charges on activists, including lese majeste (insulting the monarchy).
Thailand’s government needs to begin addressing people’s concerns, but the prospects look grim.