Police prepare to stop pro-democracy protesters from advancing during an anti-government rally in central Bangkok on Feb. 13. (Photo: AFP)
Thai police have been widely criticized for attacking peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators in the historic heart of Bangkok on Feb. 13, leaving a number of protesters and officers injured.
In one especially galling scene recorded on video, police officers in riot gear can be seen setting upon a rescue worker wearing a special vest that indicated his status.
The officers pummeled and cudgeled the unarmed man who posed no threat to them while shouting curses at their victim. They then proceeded to kick and beat the paramedic as he lay on the ground, bloodied.
“They can beat us because they know nothing will happen to them,” a young demonstrator who studies at a Bangkok university and participated in the mass rally told a UCA News reporter. “The police and the army in Thailand think they are above the law.”
Several thousand young demonstrators gathered near the Grand Palace on the afternoon of Feb. 13 to continue pressing their demands for democratic change, but police officers in full riot gear attempted to disperse the crowd.
Some protesters responded by lobbing firecrackers and projectiles at police.
In the ensuing melee, several people on both sides were injured in what was clearly an escalation of the authorities’ decision to try and stop people from protesting.
The video clip of the rescue worker’s beating, which has been widely shared online, has triggered outrage in the country, which has been roiled by months-long pro-democracy protests.
In a statement released on Feb. 14 a group of doctors calling itself the Rural Doctor Society denounced police for beating up a medical volunteer, calling the police crackdown a serious violation of human rights.
Numerous Thais have taken to social media to offer their own denunciations of police.
“Police are a tool of despots,” one commenter said.
“We Myanmar people need democracy. We stand with you, Thai people. Fight the dictator,” said a Burmese national, referring to ongoing pro-democracy rallies in the two countries, both of which are ruled by their respective militaries who ousted democratically elected governments.
In response to the outcry, Lt. Gen. Pakkapong Pongpetra, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Bureau, said the officers were within their rights to grab and beat the volunteer medic because he was at the scene of a fracas between police officers and some demonstrators.
Police had already warned the protesters to leave the site, Pakkapong said.
Thai police have routinely employed strongarm tactics against peaceful protesters composed mostly of high school, college and university students calling for democratic reforms.
High-powered water cannon and tear gas have both been employed repeatedly at peaceful mass rallies. The victims of police violence have included schoolgirls suffering health problems from chemicals sprayed at protesters.
At the same time, the authorities have been charging numerous young protesters with serious crimes including sedition and royal defamation. If convicted, pro-democracy activists could be sentenced to several years and even decades in prison.
Such tactics have drawn condemnation from international rights advocates.
“Young demonstrators and activists in Thailand are at risk as authorities escalate their crackdown on peaceful protests,” Amnesty International has noted.
“Amid peaceful student-led protests calling for political reform and an end to state harassment of government critics, the Thai police are arresting many students and activists, who may face years behind bars, simply for peacefully gathering.”