Nattawut may face sedition charges as successful ‘big honk’ rally later gave way to running clashes
Clashes between police riot control squads and young activists well into the evening and past curfew followed an emotional appeal by Sunday’s rally leader, Mr Nattawut, pleading with them to withdraw, telling them their fight was not with the national police but with the Prime Minister, General Prayut. It comes as an opinion poll shows the nation divided over the previous protests before Sunday’s rally with a slight majority showing disapproval.
Despite a strong turnout and peaceful rally on Sunday for what the Thai press dubbed the ‘big honk’ calling for Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha to resign, the leader of the rally and former cabinet minister, Nattawut Saikuar faced difficulties after young protesters strayed back to conflict and became embroiled with police lines after the rally ended. It also comes amid reports that legal action may be pursued against the redshirt leader for sedition.
On Sunday, the opposition staged an impressive and for the most part, a peaceful demonstration calling for the removal of the current government over its handling of the COVID-19 emergency.
However, even before the gathering had commenced in the central area of Bangkok near Royal Thai Police headquarters, there were reports that the officers were preparing to crack down on protesters who have been engaged in ongoing clashes with police over the last week in central Bangkok.
Investigations by police complete in nearly 200 cases linked with protest activists taking part in demos
The reports suggest that up to 300 people have been identified and that investigations have already been completed concerning nearly 200 individuals who may shortly face police and legal action relating to their participation in rallies that have turned violent and which police had made clear were illegal and will not be tolerated.
On Friday, Police Colonel Kritsana Pattanacharoen warned that all street protest activity, including the car rally on Sunday, was illegal both under the Emergency Decree and the Disease Control Act.
He warned that police intended to gather evidence against those involved so that legal cases will be brought against them.
Official at the Prime Minister’s Office says that sedition charges may be pursued against Mr Nattawut
It comes as Mr Seksakol Atthawong of the Prime Minister’s Office has also made it clear that legal action for sedition may be taken, in due course, against the leader of Sunday’s rally, high profile redshirt leader and former cabinet minister Nattawut Saikuar.
He also suggested that officials intended to request an investigation by the Anti Money Laundering Office (AMLO) to establish how this latest campaign against the government was being funded.
The demonstration in Bangkok which was overwhelmingly peaceful and good-humoured, in nature, seeking to oust Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha may be seen as an illegal effort by Mr Nattawut to undermine the state.
It succeeded in drawing a large crowd who lined up for the ‘big honk’ at 6 pm when thousands of car and motorcycle horns blared during the national anthem calling for the resignation of the government leader.
Sunday’s car honk victory was short-lived as leader rushed to Din Daeng where conflict had broken out
However, Mr Nattawut’s triumph was short-lived as just minutes afterwards, he was being driven in an open air vehicle to the Ding Daeng Triangle area where violence had broken out between police lines and young protesters in which tear gas had been fired.
Before this, from 3 pm on Sunday, cars, motorbikes and people from all over Thailand began converging on the Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok following the call from the former junior minister in the government of Yingluck Shinawatra to assemble peacefully calling for the PM’s ouster.
Crowds converged on Bangkok from all over Thailand travelling in convoys to the capital from the provinces
The crowds that converged included large groups from Ayutthaya, Chonburi, Chanthaburi, Chachoengsao, Chiang Mai and Khon Kaen provinces. They had travelled to be in position at 6 pm when the ‘big honk’ was sounded as the vehicles blared their horns during the playing of the national anthem.
In Chonburi earlier, about 100 vehicles gathered on the Sukhumvit road and liaised with police who had come to secure their safety as they set off for Bangkok in a convoy.
As the crowds swelled in Bangkok, large segments broke off and travelled to the offices of both the Palang Pracharat Party and the Bhumjaithai Party where they made their unflattering opinion of the current coalition government known.
Earlier, there were reports that police and security services had strengthened protection forces at key government buildings in the city including the police headquarters near the rally site.
Good humoured crowd on Sunday afternoon buoyed by confidence as they surged towards Ratchaprasong
In the centre of Bangkok, there was a lot of enthusiasm and confidence within the different crowds gathering with many carrying flags and banners while displaying the three-fingered salute.
Many motorcycles were ridden by young couples who came out for the day to show their support for change.
The leader of the rally, Mr Nattawut, was seen at various points from 4.15 pm when the main body of the demonstration arrived at the Ratchaprasong intersection and the crowds started to swell.
‘I’m confident the goal will be achieved,’ said Mr Nattawut before the rally took place and signalled that Sunday’s demonstration of people power was to be only the basis for future events.
Key to the success of this latest campaign is peaceful protest leading to Friday’s warning to young activists
It is understood that Mr Nattawut who is working closely with Mr Sombat Bunngamanong, a fellow redshirt activist and editor of the publication Lai Dot, who began these motorised rallies, has identified the necessity of keeping the demonstrations peaceful as the key to their success.
On Friday, Mr Nattawut warned the student and younger activists who had been clashing with police during the week that their activities were not helping the cause of the opposition movement at this time despite their best intentions.
The protests this week, organised by the Talufa Group, nevertheless joined this Sunday’s demonstration in Bangkok.
Award-winning Thai human rights activist linked with group behind this week’s protests in the city
The Talufa Group has been associated with Khon Kaen based human rights campaigner Pai Dao Din or Jatupat Boonpattararaksa who, at only 29 years of age, is already an international award-winning human rights activist.
Mr Jatupat has long campaigned against the military coup of 2014, the 2017 constitution and graduated from university while in prison.
Granted a royal pardon in 2019, he was arrested under the kingdom’s lèse-majesté law for a second time in March 2021 having been the first person in Thailand to be prosecuted in the current reign.
Public is wary of street protests at this time
The protest, clearly an attempt to gain political traction or momentum to remove the government, on Sunday came as the public is in a sceptical mood and wary of such moves right now.
Despite this, there is strong support for an expansion of democratic rights and constitutional change in Thailand together with massive disapproval, across the political divide, of the government.
Nonetheless, the violence seen on TV screens in the last week has been a major turnoff for people, at this time of crisis, as the COVID-19 pandemic inflicts widespread hardship and raises concern for the country’s economic future.
A National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) opinion poll published in the Bangkok Post on Sunday showed slight public disapproval of the ongoing protests at 51.74% with a core opposition at 36.04% who strongly disapproved.
This was balanced by 45.37% who were in favour but the core support was weaker at only 26.18% who strongly approved.
Battle is not on the streets but for people’s hearts and minds during this pandemic induced national crisis
Sunday’s rally leaders are only too well aware that this battle cannot be won on the streets but is one that must be won in the people’s minds first.
Less than an hour before the ‘big honk’ on Sunday there were signs of trouble for Mr Nattawut and his plan.
At 5.07 pm, it was reported that police gathered behind a barrier of containers at the Din Daeng Triangle, a notorious flashpoint over the last week and well away from the routes agreed for Sunday’s march, began to fire teargas at some protesters who had gathered there.
Later water cannon were also used on the demonstrators.
Nattawut rushed to the conflict scene on the back of a van to talk down protesters urging them to go home
The developing situation led to Mr Nattwaut being quickly transported to the scene, arriving there at 6.20 pm after the car horns had sounded during the national anthem.
Surrounded by supporters on the back of a van, he used an amplifier to speak to the younger protesters and those who had engaged with police lines which looked like they were being reinforced.
He pleaded with them to walk away from the confrontation with him and to comply with the promises made by the leadership of Sunday’s rally to the public at home last week that the protest would end at 6 pm.
He told the activists confronting police that they had already won on Sunday and the media had a good story to tell.
He said that if he was not on their side and did not love them, then he would not be at the scene.
Urged young activists to enjoy Sunday’s rally victory
He said he would try to talk with the Royal Thai Police who he feared were readying to clear the area. He warned the protesters that in the dark and with reduced visibility, the situation could quickly become dangerous.
‘Clap your hands to celebrate the victory. Call our front line brothers back. First I will try to negotiate with the authorities to end. But ask the front line brothers to step back and stand beside here first. When the situation is dark, visibility can cause damage,’ he declared.
‘For today’s goals and missions, we didn’t announce we would come here. Or show our presence here. We have won since the Ratchaprasong intersection and at the Democracy Monument. We didn’t set out to defeat the national police but came today to defeat General Prayut Chan-ocha. I am asking the brothers to go back. Staying is of no benefit to the people.’
Ongoing clashes flared and raged until 10 pm when the streets suddenly fell quiet for the night
Reports from the scene of the clashes suggested that, at 7.20 pm, engagement between police and protester lines was continuing even as a sizeable contingent of protesters had left with Mr Nattawut.
The violence continued into the evening and even past the 9 pm curfew as groups of young protesters redoubled back to Victory Monument and set up fires on the roads.
Some protesters were still insisting on reaching the home of the Prime Minister at an army compound on Vibhavadi Rangsit Road as riot control squads moved around the area in police vans seeking to thwart new disturbances at places where protesters were regrouping.
Sound of explosions and gunfire at 9 pm
There were also reports of injuries with one man suffering a serious head wound and police advising reporters to get behind their lines as the situation was quite dangerous.
Well after 9 pm, there were still sounds like explosions or gunfire as the riot control squads took on the young activists armed with fireworks and ping pong bombs.
At one point in Din Daeng, police officers entered a block of flats after they suspected objects were being fired from a height within the building at police lines.
However, after 10 pm, the situation began to quieten down as police in Din Daeng surveyed a quiet scene at the Pracha Songkhro intersection with a fire lit in the middle of the road, the only sign of the disturbances that had raged in the previous hours.