Thai protesters are back, and angrier, as government fumbles on COVID
By Muktita Suhartono and Hannah Beech
BANGKOK — In air heavy with monsoonal pressure and discontent, the riot police in Bangkok unleashed rubber bullets and tear gas. Tanat Thanakitamnuay, the scion of a real estate family, stood on a truck, where he had been excoriating Thailand’s leaders for their bungled response to the pandemic.
Then a hard object, perhaps a tear gas canister, struck his right eye, tearing his retina. Tanat, who once supported the 2014 coup that brought Prayuth Chan-ocha, now the prime minister, to power, said the injury Aug. 13 cost him his vision in the eye.
“I might be blinded, but now I’m stronger than ever; I see things clearer than ever,” he said. “People knew a long time ago how incompetent this government is. COVID is just more evidence and proof.”
Thailand, which not long ago was seen as a virus-containing wonder, has become yet another example of how authoritarian hubris and a lack of government accountability have fuelled the pandemic. This year, more than 12,000 people in Thailand have died of COVID-19, compared to fewer than 100 last year. The economy has been ravaged, with tourism all but nonexistent and manufacturing slowed.
Anger is spreading, and not only in the streets. Opposition lawmakers in Parliament tried to pass a vote of no confidence in Prayuth, accusing his government of squandering the months-long head start Thailand had to fight the coronavirus. That effort failed Saturday (4), even though some members of the prime minister’s coalition had briefly fanned speculation that they might support his ouster.
This summer’s vaccine rollout, already late, was further hampered by manufacturing delays. A company with no experience making vaccines, whose dominant shareholder is Thailand’s king, was given the contract to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine domestically. The government’s failure to secure adequate imported supplies has made matters worse. Only about 15% of the population is fully vaccinated, and social inequalities have let the young rich leapfrog ahead of older, poorer people.
Anti-government protests, which now occur daily, are growing more desperate, and security crackdowns more aggressive. In August, at least 10 demonstrations were broken up with force. At one, a 15-year-old boy was shot and is now in intensive care. The police have denied firing live ammunition.
“Earlier, people said they were not coming out to protest because of COVID, but now the thinking has changed to, ‘You stay at home, and you will die anyway because of the government’s inability to take care of people,’” said Tosaporn Sererak, a doctor who was once a spokesperson for the government unseated by the 2014 coup.
More than a dozen civil society groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, issued a letter Wednesday urging authorities to show restraint.
“We are troubled by the disproportionate response of riot police to provocations by protesters,” read the letter, addressed to Prayuth. “We are also concerned by the arbitrary detention of protest leaders who have recently faced new criminal charges and have been denied bail.”
Prayuth, who led the coup seven years ago as army chief, has concentrated power in his own hands, arguing that enhanced executive powers are needed to fight the pandemic.
He has tried to quash public dissent by instituting a state of emergency and criminalizing certain criticism. Hundreds have been arrested in recent months for sedition, for so-called computer crimes and for criticizing King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, which is against the law.
With some of Bangkok’s COVID lockdown measures having been lifted Sept. 1, the protest movement is gathering momentum, even if the crowds have not matched the tens of thousands who turned out for rallies last year.
“When the government is authoritarian, they think they can censor the media, they think they can stop the people from protesting,” said Rangsiman Rome, an opposition lawmaker. “But people are still coming out to protest every day, demanding change.”
During last year’s protests, which were peaceful, the riot police largely showed restraint, despite their long history of shooting demonstrators.
Their response this summer has been harsher, with protests often quashed before they can coalesce. The police now regularly deploy rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons laced with burning chemicals. Protesters respond with their own arsenals, including flamethrowers and slingshots.
Tanat, the protester who was partially blinded last month, is a beneficiary of the privilege that has split Thailand into a tiny group of haves and tens of millions of have-nots, a divide that has fed political unrest for years. He said some of his rich friends had also begun attending rallies, hopping on their chauffeurs’ motorcycles to get there rather than being driven in their usual Rolls-Royces or Maybachs.
But most protesters are from the struggling class that has been further impoverished by the pandemic. Nipapon Somnoi said her son, Warit Somnoi, 15, had offered to quit school to help the family, but she would not allow it.
The boy ended up at a protest in mid-August. Video footage, which she cannot bear to watch, shows the moment when a bullet hit his neck and, as a CT scan confirmed, lodged at his spine. The police reiterated that the security forces did not use live ammunition. Nipapon said she did not know what to believe.
Her son has been in a coma for more than two weeks. She worries that because her family is neither rich nor famous, his fate will be forgotten.
“Sometimes I think, one tear gas canister could buy six to eight doses of a good-quality vaccine,” Nipapon said. “The state keeps saying that we are a democracy, but they only listen to their own voice.”
Late last month, she sat at the hospital, caressing her son’s face, asking if he could hear her.
“There were moments when I called his name and saw his eyelids move,” she said. “There were tears seeping out. But I don’t know.”
-New York Times