The 2022 Apec summit wrapped up in Bangkok over the weekend with a plethora of photo opportunities showing Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha rubbing shoulders with global leaders.
There was also significant promotion of the Thailand-initiated Bio-Circular-Green Economic Model, with the "BCG" acronym heavily featured, together with examples highlighting the rising popularity of the kingdom's "soft power", in the form of such culinary treats as lobsters from Phuket and sun-dried fish from the border town of Tak Bai in Narathiwat province.
Yet this picture-perfect simulacrum of the highly anticipated summit was soured by reports of riot-control police battling protesters on Thursday and Friday. These violent episodes came as demonstrators under the so-called "Citizens Stop Apec 2022" group tried to walk from Din So Road to the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center -- the summit venue -- on Friday.
While there is still some mystery surrounding the group's planned goals, if they had been able to breach the venue grounds, the police should have performed better rather than resorting to violence. In the end, rubber bullets were fired and at least 25 protesters were arrested that day.
There are reportedly video clips in circulation that show some members of the group inciting unrest, destroying police vehicles and even using batons to attack riot-control officers. That being said, there are also images showing the same police -- safely armed with shields, masks and riot gear -- fighting with at least one monk and shouting aggressively at the rallying group.
While some critics claim the group's actions merited the use of force, those officers have been trained and deployed to "control" not "counter" the actions of the public.
And the physical attacks were not just launched on demonstrators, either. On Friday, at least two journalists were allegedly hit by riot-control police while covering the protest events near Din So Road on Friday. One was a Reuters reporter and the other works for The Matters, an online news site.
According to a preliminary investigation by the Thai Journalists Association (TJA), both reporters were wearing green armbands the TJA had given to registered media. Under an agreement between the Royal Thai Police (RTP) and the media association, any media seen wearing the armbands were to be allowed to do their jobs safely and unhindered.
The TJA's initial probe found that the supervisors of the riot-control officers gave no advance warning before the police charged into the demonstrators.
Moreover, a glass bottle that struck at least one of the two reporters came from the direction of the police, the TJA said in its preliminary report.
The probe also concluded the police encountered structural problems in controlling the crowd. While there was no deliberate intention to cause harm, the constant changing of commanders caused disarray.
The officers need to be better trained to keep calm and treat the protesters as part of a working democracy, rather than criminal suspects or enemies of the state. If not, how can freedom of expression be guaranteed and protected?
The TJA is expected to meet the national police chief this week to discuss such matters, while one of the reporters plans to sue the RTP.
Hopefully, these episodes can serve as lessons learned.