Anti-govt protesters must avoid violence
Thailand has witnessed a rise of violence in a series of clashes over the past weeks between anti-Prayut Chan-o-cha government protesters and riot control police that have resulted in injuries on both sides.
While the use of state violence has drawn criticism as being excessive, the government has been adamant that it has followed internationally accepted riot control procedures. Such claims were accepted by a court which threw out complaints made by two reporters who demanded compensation for injuries caused by rubber bullets.
The state's heavy-handed approach suggests the authorities are confident that the anti-government movement has lost substantial public support. It's hard to currently gauge if such confidence is valid but hardcore protesters need to understand that their aggressive tactics, ie attacks on state property and personnel, could backfire. To begin with, their aggression may give the state justification to return such violence. Such actions by protesters may also result in them losing sympathy and alienating supporters.
Unless the demonstrators readjust tactics, and resort to non-violent methods, they will lose more support and their movement will be further weakened. Their goal of overthrowing the Prayut Chan-o-cha regime will come to nothing.
Core protest leader Panusaya "Rung" Sithijirawattanakul, put it right in an Aug 10 tweet when she called an end to the protest that day, urging the demonstrators to disperse: "Today is not our last fight, we still need support from the people for the next gathering. We have met our initial goal, and all the protesters [in the Din Daeng area] should immediately leave and return home, and we will reunite again."
But unfortunately, a riot ensued.
It can be said that the violence by the state, as covered by the media, could have helped distract public attention from the government's failures in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, be it vaccine shortages resulting from misguided policies or attempts by politicians to maximise political credit from the vaccination campaign itself. The violence has also blurred the root cause of the political problem: the government's breach of promises in amending the military-sponsored charter as it wants to keep is grip on power.
As the conflict drags on, the authorities likewise believe there is a mastermind behind the anti-government rallies. Gen Prayut has likewise pretended to forget his promises to make use of parliamentary means when solving the political crisis.
Discontent has bred a pro-democracy movement spearheaded by the Ratsadon group and its alliies, including the Thai Mai Thon (Thais Won't Stand For It) group led by Adul Khiewboriboon and Jatuporn Prompan of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). Also now there is a series of "car mob" rallies by Nattawut Saikuar and activist Sombat Boonngam-anong, a faction believed to be close to fugitive former PM Thaksin Shinawatra.
The anti-government protesters have taken the opportunity to relaunch their campaign amid the pandemic to oust Gen Prayut because his government is suffering a loss of popularity due to its failure to contain the health crisis and for related economic woes. The anti-Prayut movement now sees a necessity to accelerate the game, resorting to all means, albeit violent ones, hoping for a quick knock-out, prompting the state to opt for a heavy-handed approach that sees core leaders being thrown into jail, making dialogue impossible as divisiveness widens.
The anti-Prayut movement has organised a series of marches as well as car mob rallies. They initially make contact through social media, urging demonstrators to meet at Victory Monument before marching to the PM's residence at the First Infantry Regiment on Vibhavadi-Rangsit Road. With such a plan, Din Daeng and Victory Monument have become a battlefield between protesters and riot control police who have tried to block the demonstrators from reaching the PM's house. The use of social media in organising such gatherings, via so-called horizontal leadership, is seen by security officers as a tactic by core leaders to avoid responsibility should violence occur. Past rallies saw protest leaders call for the end of a protest as a signal for a riot by hardcore elements.
The anti-Prayut movement has its own dilemmas. Their refusal to ditch a demand for the reform of the monarchy, a contentious cause that has prompted several political partners to depart and keep a distance from them so to avoid trouble with Section 112 of the Criminal Code which has been used against all key protest leaders. Although the court finally granted them bail, it made a condition that they must not repeat offences against the monarchy and to conduct no further protests. When they resumed protesting, they were put back in jail.
The protest leaders might have an ulterior motive in pushing for a quick, provocative game that would leave the government in a difficult situation should the suppression get out of hand. It's also quite certain that there will be no quick end to the anti-government protests. Its core leaders will find it necessary to revise their tactics in the hope of keeping up any momentum at least until the next elections. Then the government's popularity would probably be at rock bottom, while the opposition will be looking to gain the upper hand with its pro-democracy stance that ensures support from the younger generations. These more pro-democracy minded generations have embraced a new ideology, surpassing whatever Thaksin Shinawatra pushed for. They will keep up their demands for reform of the monarchy by making it a long-term goal. Controversial as it may seem, the demand which was made public on Aug 10 last year, is not a total waste of effort. At least, the movement can place such a taboo subject on the public agenda while the House reconciliation panel also takes up the matter for discussion. As an issue it needs more time and subtle tactics to push through.
In a recent Facebook post, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, a leader of the Progressive Movement group, insisted the pro-democracy movement will not give up their call for reform of the monarchy, but will push for it it through charter amendment. Of course, this is no easy task given the strong resistance from the ultra-conservative camp.
As the struggle gets tough, the pro-democracy movement will have to learn that a readjustment of tactics is inevitable in order to ensure popular support for their cause.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.