Anti-government protesters were met with a large police presence in Bangkok this the weekend even as Thailand struggles with surging COVID-19 cases.
Hundreds of activists took to the streets in the capital calling for political reforms. The reform demands stemmed from the widespread anti-government movement last year coupled with anger at the slow rollout of vaccines against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
But despite Bangkok’s spiking COVID-19 cases, neither a partial lockdown of the capital nor its damp weather could prevent groups from gathering Sunday.
By mid-afternoon Sunday, protesters had gathered on motorbikes and in cars near the Victory Monument in the Ratchathewi district. To mark the beginning of Buddhist Lent, those walking wore traditional costumes. Others held up three fingers, a symbol of the reform movement.
As protesters attempted to march to Bangkok’s Government House to demand that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-O-cha and his cabinet resign, they were met by lines of riot police. Roads were blocked by barricades strung with barbed-wire and large shipping containers.
One student protester in Bangkok, who said her English-name is Tyler, said she was protesting for government reforms but also more equality, including women’s rights.
“We see it is unfair in this country, and we have to reform it,” she said.
The resurgence of last year’s demonstrations began in June, but it was only last week that clashes escalated. Thai authorities deployed tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse angry street demonstrations.
Last August, protesters shocked the country with direct criticism of the monarchy's role and King Maha Vajiralongkorn, demanding reduced royal powers.
Thousands took to the streets then, and protests sometimes included skirmishes between protesters and riot police. Charges were filed against many activist leaders, including allegations of insulting or defaming the monarchy, a charge that carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
Early this year, demonstrations paused for months as authorities cracked down on activists and cases of COVID-19 rose. The resurgence of the protests comes as Thailand faces its worse wave of COVID-19 cases.
Since April, Thailand’s third wave has brought hundreds of thousands of new infections, leading the government to impose strict lockdowns across heavily hit provinces, including Bangkok. Public spaces were closed Friday in further attempts to reduce virus cases.
But Sunday saw more than 15,000 new cases of COVID-19 and more than 100 deaths, the highest since the pandemic began, local media reported.
To date, about 5% of the country’s population of almost 70 million people has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Critics and activists have slammed the pace of the vaccination rollout program.
At the protests Sunday in Bangkok, a standoff with authorities ensued. Activists prepared fake corpses and set them on fire to depict the casualties during the pandemic.
A 20-year-old student protester, who said her name is Maprand, said she was angry that more COVID-19 vaccine choices are not available for public use, questioning why Thailand has not purchased Pfizer and Moderna doses. Thailand has relied mostly on the Sinovac vaccine, but the country announced earlier this month that residents would get a mix of Sinovac and AstraZeneca shots, according to the BBC.
“I think the Sinovac vaccine won’t work for me, and it’s not good,” she told VOA.
As the smoke from the street fires cleared at the end of the day, activists began to disperse. Authorities had warned crowds not to attend rallies because of the restrictions in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.
But according to one observer, activists, aware of the health risks in Thailand, are protesting anyway, determined for reforms.
Kan Sangtong, who works as an observer with Amnesty International Thailand & ILaw as part of a human rights project, said although he expects larger protests in the future, protesters are trying to be responsible about the public health situation.
“I think they protest in open air, but they are still aware of the virus,” he said. “You can see they wear face masks, and they don’t ignore it, but they want to express [how] they feel about the government because they cannot handle this crisis.”
The situation is different in other parts of the country.
Tourism hot spots such as Phuket and Koh Samui recently launched ad campaigns to entice fully vaccinated overseas visitors to vacation on the islands. Tourism is makes up 12% of the Thai Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Prayuth Chan-O-Cha announced in June that the government plans to fully open its international borders by mid-October in hopes of boosting the country’s ailing tourism sector.
The prime minister is the former leader of the Thai military who seized power in the 2014 coup. In the disputed 2019 Thai elections, he was elected prime minister. He has the backing of the monarchy, and a senate he helped appoint, but remains unpopular with many young voters.