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Horns blaring, car mob take to streets of Thai capital again

Protesters are undaunted by increasingly brutal police crackdowns as they step up calls for PM Prayut to resign

James Lovelock, Bangkok

James Lovelock, Bangkok

Published: August 16, 2021 08:33 AM GMT

Updated: September 02, 2021 05:33 AM GMT

Horns blaring, car mob take to streets of Thai capital again

Pro-democracy protesters take part in a motorbike rally in central Bangkok on Aug. 15. (Photo: AFP)

You could hear them before you saw them. Their presence was advertised by loud blasts on car horns as the motorized protesters approached a large intersection in the center of Bangkok, now largely deserted as a result of a citywide Covid-19 lockdown.

Then they erupted into sight: swarms of motorcycles and long lines of passenger cars forming an ingenious form of street protest aimed at toppling Thailand’s autocratic government.

The demonstrators appeared undaunted by the increasingly brutal police crackdowns on similar protests over previous days or by an emergency decree that prohibits all gatherings during an ongoing outbreak of Covid-19 under pain of prison sentences.

After several days of flash mobs at strategic points in central Bangkok, thousands of mostly young Thais yet again took to the streets on Aug. 15 for a so-called car mob during which they congregated at a major intersection in the commercial heart of the city, temporarily shutting traffic down.

Belonging to the Free Youth grassroots initiative, the protesters flashed their movement’s trademark three-fingered salute of resistance while tooting their horns and displaying handwritten signs taped to car windows with pro-democratic messages.

They then set off again, riding around town in a large convoy. Their raucous cavalcade drew sympathetic locals in droves to the sidewalks from where they flashed three-fingered salutes in support. 

It’s dangerous [to protest] but we have no other way to make our voices heard. This government has ruined our lives

The young demonstrators were joined on Aug. 15 afternoon by numerous members of the so-called Red Shirt movement, which largely comprises the urban and rural poor, including supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, a popular former prime minister who was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and has been living in exile for a decade.

Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra served as Thailand’s first female prime minister from 2011 until 2014 when army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha, the current prime minister, staged another coup to seize power at the head of a junta. Yingluck followed her brother into self-imposed exile abroad to escape being imprisoned on corruption charges, which her supporters say were politically motivated.

The hours-long mass demonstration on Aug. 15 culminated in a mass blaring of car horns across Bangkok and elsewhere at 6pm when the national anthem is played daily from loudspeakers. The message issued this way to Thailand’s beleaguered prime minister was loud and clear: Resign!

This time the procession was allowed to make its way around parts of Bangkok unimpeded, unlike in previous days when police in riot gear fired tear gas and rubber bullets at unarmed protesters, severely injuring several demonstrators.

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One prominent protester, a former arch-conservative who has switched sides and joined the pro-democracy movement, was shot and blinded in one eye by a rubber bullet. Some demonstrators retaliated by throwing rocks and shooting marbles from slingshots at police.

“It’s dangerous [to protest] but we have no other way to make our voices heard,” a young woman who identified herself only as Nut told a UCA News reporter during the Aug. 15 demonstration.

“This government has ruined our lives,” she said before she was whisked away on a motorcycle.

Youth-led mass protests first erupted more than a year ago after the Constitution Court disbanded the widely popular progressive Future Forward Party on a legal technicality. With normal avenues now closed in parliament to reform-minded young politicians, many of their supporters among Thailand’s youth took to the streets in anger.

Over the past year the authorities have sought to quell growing anti-establishment animus among young Thais by charging numerous leaders of student-led demonstrations with crimes such as sedition and royal defamation, both of which carry penalties that can mean decades in prison for those convicted.

However, such strongarm tactics have failed to suppress frequent street demonstrations during which protesters have been calling in no uncertain terms for sweeping democratic reforms and the resignation of the current military-allied government led by Prayut.

The Observatory condemns the arbitrary detention and judicial harassment of the eight human rights defenders

The mishandling of a raging coronavirus outbreak by Prayut and his cabinet has further inflamed sentiments against his administration among a growing segment of the population. Yet Prayut has shown no sign of compromise.

Thai authorities responded to renewed protests last week by re-arresting eight prominent youth leaders of the pro-democracy movement, who are facing numerous charges including sedition and royal defamation.

Human rights organizations have condemned these arrests by Thailand’s government, calling on it to release all detained political activists “immediately and unconditionally,” as per a statement issued last week by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of the International Federation for Human Rights and the World Organization Against Torture.

“The Observatory condemns the arbitrary detention and judicial harassment of the eight human rights defenders, which seem to be only aimed at punishing them for their legitimate human rights activities and the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly,” the group said.

“The Observatory calls on the Thai authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the eight human rights defenders and to put an end to the judicial harassment against them and all other human rights defenders in the country.” 

By the evening the protesters, now many of them on foot, swelled into a mass of thousands around Victory Monument in central Bangkok with speakers reiterating demands. They also warned Thailand’s prime minister that soon they will be back. 

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