Police winning the battle on the street as more militant protest movement turns off the public

Deteriorating and now dangerous security situation linked with ongoing protest activity is alienating public support while authorities continue to arrest and send more files to the public prosecutor’s office where 130 new prosecutions are currently under consideration with more activists being jailed and key leaders consistently refused bail.

Police forces in Bangkok on Saturday held sway over up to 1,000 protesters amid violent clashes which have led to calls from Thailand’s National Press Council for all parties to consider the safety of reporters during what are, increasingly, violent confrontations between police and a more militant hardcore of the dwindling number of pro-democracy movement supporters on the streets of the capital city.

Riot police engaged with protesters near Sanam Luang on Saturday evening in violent scenes which saw 32 people hurt and 5 arrests as they dispersed protesters attempting to remove a container barricade near the Grand Palace.

It was another Saturday night of violent street protests in Bangkok as a hardline core group within the pro-democracy movement, Redem (Restart Democracy), gathered near Sanam Luang and the Grand Palace. They were confronted by a wall of containers behind which was a force of riot control police armed with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon.

It is widely accepted now, in Bangkok, that the nature of these street protests has changed since the beginning of the year with more violent undertones coming to the fore. 

In turn, this has discouraged many pro-democracy activists from taking part.

Decisive elimination of the Wevo guard leadership on March 6th is having an effect on protest activity

A police operation on March 6th last when the leader of the Wevo protest guards group, Piyarat Chongthep and several associates were arrested has also left the protesters less effective at inflicting damage on police lines which became their key objective since the beginning of the year.

Guards leader faces 7 years in jail after being charged

Mr Pityarat and others have been charged with ‘criminal association’ due to the activities of the group in planning coordinated attacks on police forces and are facing up to seven years in prison if convicted.

32 injuries and 5 arrested in violent clashes

Nonetheless, Saturday’s confrontation which saw a crowd of 1,000 confront the police, resulted in up to 32 injuries being reported and 5 arrests being made.

The protest activity began approaching 7 pm when the protesters were confronted with a wall of container units blocking access to Sanam Luang and the Grand Palace as well as other key buildings such as the National Museum, the Bangkok City Pillar Shrine and Wat Phra Si Rattana.

Police warned protesters that the gathering was illegal and fired water cannon in the air before hostilities

The Chief of Chana Songkhram police, Police Colonel Sanong Saengmani, addressed the crowd initially and informed them that the gathering was illegal under the Emergency Decree and orders under the Communicable Disease Act 2015.

Facing hostility, he then withdrew as protesters attempted to pull down one of the containers and were met by warnings from police who fired water cannon into the air.

The failure of the protesters led to a police onslaught in which water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets were used.

There was never any doubt about Saturday night’s action given the smaller number of protesters. Police eventually charged them and began hunting them down.

At one point a small grenade was thrown at the police from among the retreating mob.

3,000 police deployed at the scene as protesters turned to vandalism at Democracy Monument

Police Lieutenant General Pakkapong Pongpetra of the Metropolitan Police Bureau told reporters that his force had deployed 22 companies of riot control officers numbering 3,000 to deal with the disturbances.

Nevertheless, after hours of violent scuffles and mayhem, the protesters withdrew to Pin Klao bridge and Ratchadamnoen Road where near Democracy Monument, they vented their frustration by vandalising potted plants near the structure and setting fires. 

Redem, a hardcore movement targeting the monarchy

The Redem movement is one of the most hardline of a diverse number of protest groups that has particularly targeted the Thai monarchy since the demonstrations erupted last year.

Amid the sale of protest kites to fly over Sanam Luang on Saturday evening before the violence took hold, the group at 7.19 pm began encouraging protesters to read a book online via a PDF upload based on a speech given by pro-democracy activist Arnon Nampa at a highly significant protest event on August 3rd last year, themed Phra Maha Kasat Kap Sangkhom (The Monarchy and Thai Society).

It was also reported that some physical copies of the booklet were made available among the crowd on Saturday evening.

Publishing house in Nonthaburi raided, books seized containing August 2020 speech by Arnon Nampa

Earlier on Saturday, Nonthaburi police raided a publishing house in the province identified as Samesky Publishing Co., and seized up to 80 copies of the book.

A Facebook announcement by Same Sky Books, later on Saturday, made it clear that the organisation was not responsible for the printing of the book.

That protest, in August 2020, attended by only 200 protesters dressed in Harry Potter-themed outfits, was the first overt attempt to draw the monarchy into the political debate, a situation that some observers say has alienated many ordinary Thais from the street protests while the Progressive Movement sees the airing of the subject as essential.

Crackdown has seen protest leaders jailed without bail and facing very stiff prison sentences if convicted in court

Mr Arnon and other key protest leaders are currently being held at Bangkok Remand Prison on lèse-majesté charges and since February 9th last have been refused bail six times with the court having warned the defendants that they face heavy jail sentences if found guilty.

The heavy police crackdown on the movement which has seen the protesters resort to overtly violent tactics has also been accompanied by a heavier hand in prosecuting all those who are taking part in the anti-establishment activity.

Militant movement included a red guillotine image on a Saturday Facebook message to supporters as prosecutions grow with the police net growing wider

The deepening tension and antagonism between the Redem movement and the establishment was seen on Saturday when a Facebook post displayed a red guillotine in messaging to its supporters

It is reported police are investigating up to 180 people as a result of their ongoing surveillance of the street protest movement and that case files on up to 130 people have been sent to the public prosecutor’s office. The police net is growing wider with those prosecuted facing potentially severe consequences.

72 people, including teenagers, have been charged with offences under Article 112 of the Criminal Code for lèse-majesté and face heavy penalties.

It is not uncommon, in Thai courts, for sentences of 40 to 60 years imprisonment to be handed down under the law where there are multiple counts or infringements due to a strict and rigorous interpretation of the statute by judges.

Statement by National Press Council underlines deteriorating security situation at such protests

Following Saturday’s brief but violent confrontation between the police and protesters, the National Press Council issued a statement in which it appeared to express concern for the safety of the press at such protests given the deteriorating security conditions.

It urged both sides to refrain from violence in addition to a call for more patience and tolerance.

At the same time, it warned reporters that they should always wear a press armband but to be aware that this did not offer them protection from harm.

The statement appealed to the police to carry out their operations in a ‘step by step’ manner and urged media organisations to also consider the safety of their personnel on the ground.

Police officer on March 6th was shot and injured

The changing and more dangerous nature of the protest clashes can also be seen from a statement from Police Lieutenant General Pakkapong on March 8th when he referred to the police operation which smashed the Wevo guard’s group.

In the aftermath of that operation, police vehicles carrying those arrested had come under attack from supporters of the protest guards. 

During that attack, the senior police officer confirmed that a gun had been fired at a police vehicle and that a police officer had been injured and was being treated in hospital.

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Further reading:

Guards leader faces 7 years in jail after being charged with ‘illegal association’ and refused bail

Fears as protesters gather in Bangkok calling for democratic reform and the release of prisoners denied bail

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