Pro-democracy protesters react as police fire tear gas during an anti-government rally near the Thai parliament in Bangkok on Nov. 17. (Photo: Jack Taylor/AFP)
Thai police responded with force against pro-democracy protesters who gathered outside the country’s parliament building, shooting jets of water laced with tear gas and other chemicals at them.
As a large group of young protesters converged on parliament to present their demands for democratic reforms at around 2pm on Nov. 17, police warned them to stay back before starting to fire water cannons for several minutes.
At least 20 protesters were injured in the ensuing melee. Several others required treatment for tear gas-related eye problems.
Officers in riot gear were seen loading their semi-automatic weapons with rubber bullets as the demonstrators refused to leave, but it is not known if they fired any such bullets at protesters.
The deputy head of Bangkok’s police force, Piya Tavichai, defended the police’s actions.
“Police had to use tear gas and water cannon because protesters were trying to break through the barriers,” Piya said.
It was the third time police had used water cannons and tear gas against peaceful protesters, whose ranks included teenage girls and women, in recent weeks, causing widespread outrage among many Thais.
There are growing fears that the authorities might be stepping up their heavy-handed treatment of protesters, most of whom are in their teens and twenties, as demonstrators continue to press their demands for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to resign.
Prayut seized power in 2014 as the then head of the Royal Thai Army by ousting a civilian government that was elected in a landslide in 2011. He stayed on last year after parliamentary elections widely seen by international observers as only partially free and fair.
Since early July this year, tens of thousands of young Thais have been staging regular mass protests against Prayut’s government, which has long been mired in allegations of malfeasance, corruption and cronyism.
The prime minister’s military-allied administration has also been accused of rolling back basic freedoms in a country once seen as a leading light of democratization in Southeast Asia.
“The 2014 military coup marked the beginning of five years of tenacious efforts by the Thai authorities to silence the voices of human rights defenders, activists, journalists and opposition politicians, including online,” Amnesty International noted in a recent report on Thailand.
Yet despite an ostensible return to democratic rule after parliamentary elections in March last year, Prayut’s government “is showing no signs of loosening its grip” and continues to employ various forms of repression, the rights group added.
In recent months scores of protest leaders have been charged with various crimes, including sedition, simply for voicing their demands for democratic reforms.
The crackdown on peaceful protesters on Nov. 17 indicates that Prayut’s administration is refusing to show any compromise in the face of mounting protests, observers say.
“Situation outside parliament is getting very ugly. Pro-democracy protesters attacked with tear gas and water cannons, threatened with rubber bullets,” observed Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a Scottish journalist and political commentator, as the violent response by the authorities was unfolding.
“Royalist counter rally faces no police violence,” he added, referring to a pro-regime demonstration the same day by hardline royalists that authorities allowed to proceed without any interference.
“No one is surprised by such double standards anymore,” a young protester, who studies at Bangkok’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University, told UCA News.
“The way they treat us and the way they treat the yellow shirts [pro-government protesters dressed in the royalist color] shows you that this regime serves the interests of only a small group and does not represent the large majority of Thai people.”