Tough fight before 19 September protest

Summary

- It is anticipated that 50,000-100,000 protesters are coming to Thammasat University today to call for constitutional amendments, freedom of expression and monarchy reform. The protesters are becoming better organized as they get help from public figures, celebrities and experts.

But the police are just as sophisticated as they have come up with a new plan to deal with the protesters. They have moved documents out of Government House, closed two universities, targeted protest organizers, and deployed 8,550 policemen at 14 spots surrounding the protest sites. Both sides are facing a tough fight in the hours to come.

Caption: People started gathering at Thammasat University to protest against the government. Source: Prachatai

19 September is another big day in Thailand. The United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration have announced that they will hold a large protest at Thammasat University’s Tha Pra Chan campus to commemorate the 14th anniversary of the 2006 military coup.

They anticipate that 50,000-100,000 will join as they call for constitutional amendments, freedom of expression, and monarchy reform. It is planned that they will stay overnight at Sanam Luang and go to Government House the next day.

They have been getting more and more organized through the experience of protests over the past several months. Buses from Khon Kaen province arrived one day in advance. Red shirt protesters are coming from 17 northern provinces. The organizers have asked older people to join over the issue of delayed pensions. Traditional allies including trade unions and LGBT groups are also expected to join.

With the help of public figures, celebrities and experts, students have mobilized their sources of power.

  • The 6 political parties in the opposition held a press conference on 17 September to announce that they will send MPs from the Committee on Administration to observe the situation and help the protesters by guaranteeing bail if they are arrested.
     
  • Pakorn Porncheewangkun, a campaign fundraiser, said on 15 September that he has spent 438,000 baht for electric generator trucks, toilet trucks and bottles of water for the student protests.
     
  • Inthira ‘Sine’ Charoenpura, a pro-democracy celebrity, said on 15 September that she has prepared 7 dinner menus and 1 dessert for the protesters on 19 September. Boiled rice with chicken will be served on the morning of 20 September. Ovaltine, coffee, 24,000 bottles of water, 20,000 cookies, and 50 buckets of ice cream will be available throughout the two-day protest.    
     
  • iLaw, an independent organization which has successfully collected more than 50,000 signatures to launch a people’s constitutional amendment, will open a booth asking for more signatures at the protest site for the last day on 19 September.
     
  • Dr Tossaporn Serirak, former spokesperson in the Yingluck Shinawatra government, a member the Pheu Thai party and a doctor, said that he has gathered a group of democratically minded doctors to provide three medical units at the protest site.

However, the Thai authorities have also prepared for the upcoming protest.

  • On 17 September, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha gave a speech on TV stating that people should refrain from joining protests in order to prevent the return of Covid-19 and worsen the economy. He said he has asked the authorities to “treat the protesters with gentleness.”
     
  • Thammasat University has announced the cancellation of all classes on 19-20 September. A document from the Faculty of Law said that security agents have asked the University to close the campus on the day of the protest.
     
  • Silpakorn University’s Wang Tha Phra Campus, next to Thammasat University’s Tha Pra Chan Campus, will also be closed. The university’s announcement claimed that certain areas are under construction and the protest may endanger people’s lives and properties.
     
  • On 17 September, government documents were moved out of Government House. Parking is also not allowed at Government House. Pol Col Vacharavee Thamsema, commander of the 4th Sub-Division of the 3rd Special Branch Division said they will install more security cameras in the area and deploy 300 policemen at Government House.
     
  • Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam said that protesters must respect the 2015 Public Assembly Law which allows the Royal Thai Police Chief to prohibit protesters from getting nearer than 50 metres of Government House.
     
  • On 16 September, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Pol Lt Gen Pakkapong Pongpetra said that there will be 4 checkpoints surrounding the protest sites to check for weapons and temperatures before people can enter the protest sites. He asked for cooperation from the protesters, as the measures are also to ensure that no violence will come from third parties. 
     
  • On 13 September, Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said that the protesters should wear masks to prevent Covid-19 infections. The Ministry of Public Health said they will give 100,000 masks and 100,000 tubes of hand gel for the protesters. When passing through medical checkpoints, public health officers will ask them to write down on a tag their existing illnesses and put it on their bag if they have any. The Ministry also asked 20 hospitals to be ready in case of emergency.
     
  • The government has deployed 8,550 policemen and policewomen at 14 spots including Thammasat University, the Royal Palace, the Democracy Monument, the Jo Po Ro intersection, Makawan Rangsan bridge and other junctions close to the protest sites. Bangkok Insight reported the police as saying that the measure was to secure critical transportation routes from the protests. But it can also be seen as a deterrent against riots.

While the measures above are more or less legitimate, other actions by the Thai authorities are outright harassment of the organizers.

  • On 16 September, the Constitutional Court accepted a complaint against three protest leaders for their monarchy reform statement on the protest stage on 10 August. The complaint claims that they used their rights and freedom to overthrow a democracy with the monarch as head of state.
     
  • On 17 September, police raided the residence of Jatupat ‘Pai’ Boonpattararaksa and confiscated 17 banners with messages about monarchy reform. The banners were to be used at the protest on 19 September. Police said they came to collect evidence with a search warrant.
     
  • Pakorn Porncheewangkun told Prachatai that police have tried to prevent 15 toilet trucks he hired from coming to the protest sites by threatening the drivers and staff at their homes. 5 trucks withdrew out of fear but 10 will come anyway. Pakorn has hired additional vacuum and water trucks to support existing toilet trucks and make sure protesters get timely access to toilets.
     
  • Student leader Panusaya ‘Rung’ Sithijirawattanakul posted on Facebook that a company engaged to install the protest stage has been surrounded by the police trying to prevent the organizing team from taking things into their own vehicles. The police did not give any explanation for their actions but kept asking the organizing team if they were going the protest.
     
  • On 17 September, Parit ‘Penguin’ Chiwarak posted on Facebook that he had seen police vehicles and officers at his residence for several days already. In the night before protest, Parit posted on Facebook that a police vehicle came to prevent the organizers from bringing audio equipment to the protest sites. On the day of the protest, police seized 50,000 copies of a booklet about monarchy reform which were to be distributed at the protest.
     
  • Four students have been arrested on sedition charges, two of whom were scheduled to take the stage at the protest. Protesters from northern provinces reported that they could not get to the protest because the authorities stopped them at their homes or at police checkpoints. Some of them managed to get through despite police threats. In Chonburi province, the police also asked activists at their homes if they were going to join the protest.   

Even though these examples of suppression are crystal clear, it remains uncertain how police assess the situation. According to a leaked document, they estimate that only 6,500 protesters will join, but a Pol Maj Gen said that the number could range from 10,000 to 100,000.

A report by Matichon Weekly said that the security forces think that this protest is just a rehearsal for major events in October when constitution amendment proposals reach the floor of parliament, so the use of violence is unlikely.

The police strategy is also difficult to read. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Pol Lt Gen Pakkapong Pongpetra said police would use a “July 2009 Plan” which enables activists to anticipate the next steps taken by the police.

But just one day before the protest Pol Col Kritsana Pattanacharoen, Deputy Spokesperson of the Royal Thai Police, said they would no longer use this plan because it is already obsolete. Instead, they would use a “2020 Protest Plan” for the upcoming protest to adapt to the Covid-19 situation and the 2015 Public Assembly Law. The principle remains the same in that measures will be taken “from light to heavy”.

The new plan will put the protesters in a tough spot. However, the protesters have also become more organized thanks to the help they have received from their supporters. If all of this says anything, it is that both sides are facing formidable opponents as they enter a tough fight in the hours to come.