Thai police on Sunday used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse hundreds of anti-government protesters who staged a rally in Bangkok, despite coronavirus restrictions banning gatherings of more than five people.
Protesters demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government, insisting the monarchy and military budget be cut during the pandemic and calling for the import of mRNA coronavirus vaccines that no have yet to be imported into Thailand on a large scale to combat a growing wave of the virus.
The rally came as Thailand recorded its biggest single-day jump in viral infections – nearly 11,400 – and new restrictions were announced, such as the closure of most domestic flights.
Many parts of the country, including Bangkok, are already under some form of lockdown, which includes restrictions on gatherings and business operations as well as an overnight curfew.
As infections and deaths increase and more people face economic hardship, disapproval of the government’s handling of the pandemic has grown.
Criticism of Mr Prayuth’s government for its failure to ensure an early and adequate supply of vaccines is widespread.
Thailand relies mainly on two vaccines, including China’s Sinovac vaccine, which some studies indicate is less effective against the Delta variant which is currently wreaking havoc in Southeast Asia.
Thailand’s other main vaccine is AstraZeneca, which a Thai company owned by the country’s king has been producing, but only since June and in smaller quantities than expected.
Sunday’s rally was led by Free Youth, a student protest group that drew tens of thousands to its protests last year, when it had three main demands: that Mr Prayuth’s government resign, that the constitution is amended to make it more democratic and the national monarchy becomes more responsible.
Jutatip Sirikhan, a leading Free Youth activist, accused in a telephone interview with the Associated Press that many people have died from Covid-19 due to lack of transparency and mismanagement by Mr. Prayuth and his cabinet.
Thailand has recorded a total of 403,386 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 3,341 related deaths since the start of the pandemic. More than 90% of cases and deaths have occurred since April of this year. This weekend, daily virus deaths topped 100 for the first time.
“If we don’t get out now, we don’t know how long we’ll survive and if we’ll have a chance to do it again,” she said of the virus and the protests.
Protesters began to gather at the Capital’s Democracy Monument in the early afternoon, where organizers handed out N95 masks, medical gloves, disinfectant spray and raincoats before attempting to surrender to Government House, which houses the Prime Minister’s offices.
Organizers also distributed fictitious corpses in white shrouds depicting Covid-19 victims, which were then placed on the ground atop a picture of Mr Prayuth at an intersection near Government House and set on fire.
The eerie characters also conjured up images of the bodies of several Thai activists who were apparently kidnapped in 2019 from where they lived in exile in neighboring Laos.
In an effort to prevent the spread of the infection, many protesters drove cars or motorcycles, instead of marching as they had done in previous protests.
About 1,500 riot police were deployed, along with water cannon trucks.
Deputy National Police spokesperson Kissana Pattanacharoen admitted authorities used water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters after several warnings.
The injury reports were not complete, but emergency services at the city’s Erawan Medical Center said two people were sent to hospital following the protests, which organizers called for end before nightfall.