BANGKOK — Leaders of the pro-democracy protests that sought to oust PM Prayut Chan-o-cha appear undecided on Monday how their campaign would proceed, given the recent spikes in the number of coronavirus cases.
A crowd of about 200 people showed up in front of Bang Khen Police Station in Bangkok this morning as planned to show their solidarity with eight activists who have been charged with royal defamation, or lese majeste. One of them, Panupong Jadnok, said no coronavirus infection has been traced to the demonstrations he and other activists organized.
“Over the past months that we have been on the streets, no one has ever caught the virus from attending a protest,” he said. “People can take care of themselves, unlike the government who always let their guard down.”
At least 800 coronavirus cases have been reported in Samut Sakhon since Thursday – all of them traced to one of the busiest seafood markets. More infections are expected in the coming days as health workers are putting hundreds of people to coronavirus tests.
Dates for the next major protest are yet to be announced, though activists have suggested it will be held after the New Year.
“It will not affect our movement,” Panupong said when asked by a reporter about the second wave of domestic outbreak.
But another prominent activist, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, said it is still unclear whether the protests will take place as planned. He also urged the government to evenly enforce health measures across all mass gatherings.
“It depends on the situation,” Parit said. “I also find it strange that the government is banning this and that like a concert earlier this month, but not royal events which are also crowded.”
The growing anxiety over the coronavirus surge, which health officials said has now spread across five provinces including Bangkok, was already felt among pro-democracy activists Roi Et. Organizers of an anti-government rally scheduled in the northeastern province for this Thursday said the event was postponed indefinitely for safety reasons.
“We’re not only concerned about ourselves, but also others in the province who may be affected should the outbreak break out in Roi Et,” leader of the Free Youth Roi Et group who identified himself as Parn said.
He also concerned that the authorities may point a finger at the demonstrators as scapegoats in an event of possible local outbreak.
“It also falls on the same date the Royal Noble Consort Sineenat is expected to pay a visit to the province,” Parn said. “Moreover, the province will also hold a mass dance of over 24,000 participants next week. There will be large gatherings, but if there’s an outbreak, authorities will certainly lay the blame on us.”
Physician and former Pheu Thai MP Tossaporn Serirak, who works as a field doctor in protest sites, said he supports the idea of withholding demonstrations until the situation returns to normal.
“Demonstrators should be socially responsible as well. I ask every party to cancel any mass gatherings for the next 14 days,” Tossaporn said. “I talked to some of the leaders and most of them agreed with the idea.”
Panupong the activist also seized on the latest virus outbreak to criticize the government and health minister Anutin Charnvirakul for failing to control the situation.
“Stop using the coronavirus as an excuse to crack down on dissent,” Panupong said. “They’re blaming the people for the clumsiness of PM Prayut Chan-o-cha’s administration. It also shows that the Emergency Decree they’ve been implementing for ages failed to contain the virus.”
Student-led protests against PM Prayut initially broke out in February, but they were later abandoned amid the outbreak of coronavirus in March.
Demonstrations resumed with even larger turnouts in July after the pandemic subsided. The movement is calling for Prayut’s resignation, charter amendments, and monarchy reforms.