BANGKOK — Pro-democracy campaigners on Monday are forced to reassess the strategy of holding street protests without clear leadership, a day after the rally close to PM Prayut Chan-o-cha’s residence ended in violence.
Sunday’s march took the protesters from the Victory Monument to the 1st Infantry Regiment, where PM Prayut’s taxpayer-funded residence is located. The rally took a chaotic turn after hardline groups of demonstrators refused to disperse and police fired rubber baton rounds into the crowds. At least 22 people were arrested, and 33 injured.
Activists interviewed for this story criticized the protest organizers for not doing enough to defuse the tension and bring the situation under control.
“There’s no clear communication,” student and former activist Bunkueanun “Francis” Paothong said in a phone interview. “The organizers have a duty to find a way to avoid confrontations since no demonstrators would come to a protest to get themselves hurt.”
The protest on Sunday was called by the Free Youth group, now rebranding itself as Restart Democracy following a backlash over its promotion of communist ideology. It was billed as a leaderless movement, and no representatives from Free Youth were present at the march.
Instead of the organizers taking control of the protest they called, key decisions were made by opinion polls on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app.
Free Youth leader Tattep “Ford” Ruangprapaikitseree could not be reached for comments as of publication time.
Red Shirt activist Anurak Jeantawanich, who was at yesterday’s protest, said the leaderless tactic brings both pros and cons for the pro-democracy movement.
“Protesters would feel more equal and involved with the movement,” Anurak said. “However, there was no one to decide when the protesters faced critical situations.”
He went on, “Several people like myself or Dr. Totsaporn [former Pheu Thai MP Totsaporn Serirak] had to negotiate with the police when there was a clash. Some of the protesters listened to me, but some weren’t, and they insisted on engaging with the police.”
The decision to call off the protest was made at around 9.30pm, hours after the first skirmish broke out between demonstrators and riot police. Clashes continued throughout the night as police moved in to disperse and arrest the remaining protesters who stood their ground around the vicinity of the army base.
Police also fired rubber-coated metal rounds at the demonstrators – marking an escalation in the use of force since the street protests began in early 2020.
Bangkok’s emergency medical service center said a total of 33 people were injured during Sunday’s protest. Ten of them were civilians, while 23 of them were police officers. One policeman on crowd control duties also suffered a fatal heart attack and died at a hospital.
A reminder that “Rubber bullets” are in essence metal shells coated in rubber and they can cause injuries, as evident on the body of this protester who was struck by one of the bullets fired by riot police on Vibhavadi Rangsit Road. #Thailand #KE #ม็อบ28กุมภา pic.twitter.com/ZRFJjR2BwQ
— Khaosod English (@KhaosodEnglish) February 28, 2021
Bunkueanun said crowdsourcing is not an effective way of making immediate decisions since not everyone at the protest is connected to the app.
“They used a voting system on Telegram to make decisions, but not everyone is using the app,” Bunkueanun said. “In fact, it was a tie-vote. It was 50-50 between the decisions to disperse or continue the protest.”
The student continued, “The leaderless tactic only works in certain situations such as when the protest is going to be stationary, where there are clear plans and agenda.”
Several demonstrators at Sunday’s protest could be heard by Khaosod English correspondents shouting “there’s no negotiation, there’s no leader” during one of the clashes.
Protesters hurled objects they could find at the police, while the police retaliated with rubber bullets, tear gas, and water jets from anti-riot vehicles.
Another activist who served as a coordinator between the demonstrators and police told Khaosod English during Facebook Live coverage that the commotions resulted from the detention of key protest leaders who were denied bail over royal defamation charges.
“This is what happens when there’s no leader,” he said. “There’s no one to lead or listen to.”
Anurak, the Redshirt activist, suggested there should be a clear schedule and details for the future protests to prevent further confusions at the protest site.
“The organizers should set a time when they will end the protest beforehand,” Anurak said. “Personally, I think it should be before 7pm. I want to see a peaceful protest, if the protesters stay longer, the police can use it as an excuse to disperse them.”
The Free Youth has yet to announce the date and venue for the next protest.