On the surface of events, we may only see media photos of the confrontations at Din Daeng since August 2021, but an observer of the protests sees many minor details under the surface which could help defuse the violence.
- The royal motorcade at Chamai Maruchet Bridge was the starting point for the state’s use of force to suppress protests and restrict the growth of protests.
- The protestors at the Din Daeng intersection are diverse and are not just vocational college students or ‘motorcycle racers’ with no demands, acting out of impulse as understood by state officials
- Opening a space for negotiating, talking and listening as humans with equal status will help slow down the violence
Suppressing a protest at the Din Daeng intersection. Photo by Nontawat Numbenchapol.
The Din Daeng intersection has turned into something resembling a battlefield between Thalugaz protestors and the Crowd Control Police. The confrontation becomes more intense every day. These are the observations made by Busarin Paenae, coordinator of Mobdata Thailand in her capacity as a protest observer.
Not only has she observed what happens at each protest, Busarin also points out that there are many details within the confrontations shown in the media, and one must not take a stereotypical or reductionist view.
But in the repeated cycle at the Din Daeng intersection or what is ultimately a continuous protest, opening up space for negotiating, talking and listening as humans with equal status is the only solution that can help slow down the violence or, better still, stop it from happening.
Royal motorcade, the starting point of the use of force to suppress protests
iLaw started to collect systematic observation data of the protests in early 2020, allowing us to see forms of protest that have never been seen ever since the coup in that most protestors or people at the tipping point are usually students of the new generation. The flashpoints expanded from university grounds into public spaces, a new phenomenon unfamiliar to state agents.
Busarin says that initially, there were attempts to limit, restrict and file charges under the Public Assembly Act 2015 in order to obstruct the protests, until the demands to reform the monarchy caused the protests to grow even larger.
The important turning point was 14 October 2020, when a royal motorcade passed protestors near Chamai Maruchet Bridge, leading to the declaration of a severe emergency situation. Water cannon and teargas were used for the first time on 16 October.
The Queen’s motorcade in front of Government House passes protestors on 14 October 2020 (anonymous photographer)
“The suppression of that protest was the starting point. Water cannon were used but were unable to stop the protest. We saw the state start to use more force. At that time, the protests were able to go a long way, to the Grand Palace and 11th Infantry Regiment for example,”
“At that time, we understood that there were negotiation procedures since the protests had clear leaders and the state showed a willingness to negotiate, rather than disperse the protests right away. When small confrontations broke out, there was still space for negotiations. So in 2020, we only saw two small confrontations when protests were dispersed.”
But in 2021, there was a trend for the state to manage things differently. Although protestors were the same as in 2020 – students, volunteer guards, red shirts or the general public – the state started to use more force in an unpredictable way using the powers granted by the 2005 Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations. Even with small protests with around 50 people, the police used as many as 200 officers to arrest and drag protestors out of the area.
Another thing that has become clearer is that police officers will strictly protect important areas, not allowing protestors to pass or get near them, such as Sanam Luang, the Grand Palace or the 11th Infantry Regiment The King's Close Bodyguard Command.
“So on 8 February this year, there was a march from the Victory Monument to the 1st Infantry Regiment. From our observation, they gave no warning of what they would find if they went, but just that this gathering was a violation of the Emergency Decree. When the marchers arrived and were dismantling the container barrier to hold their activities, it appears that the police deployed and arrested them without any negotiations,”
“The protestors were still using last year’s protest methods, which was to drag barricades to block the police once they have come, thinking that this will slow the police. But no, the police officers charged right away, and some people were trampled underfoot. After that rubber bullets were fired without any prior warning, even though protestors were still in a controllable state and hadn’t used any violence. The tension kept increasing, and we started to see that they were no longer negotiating with protestors.”
The state doesn’t want the protests to expand
Prachatai made the observation that it may be the fact that the protests in 2021 talked about reforming the monarchy and there were more speeches and criticisms of the monarchy was the catalyst for the authorities to have to use force in the suppression, Busarin said,
“I think that the speeches or the ideas expressed are still at the same level as in 2020 when there were no confrontations. The bluntness, the banners or the straightforward talk has been going on since last year, but I think that last year there was still a period when Section 112 was not used. It started being used in November 2020. In my opinion, at first they negotiated that protests could be held but the monarchy could not be criticised, but after letting things go, it began to grow steadily. It’s like planting seeds of thought. I think that this year they probably won’t allow any large protests or pictures of gatherings of large numbers of people fighting for the 3 demands like last year.”
A sign saying “reform the monarchy” in front of the Embassy of Germany on 26 Oct 2020
The reason, Busarin explained, is because, from observation, the protest on 16 August 2020 was the second protest after the large protest in July at the Democracy Monument. She saw efforts by state officials to intercept drones from going up to show images from a high angle or the use of trucks to disrupt telephone signals to prevent livestreams of images to the public, even though the state’s attempts failed.
“From my point of view, I think that what is being said is still the same, but they won’t let the protests grow any more. They won’t negotiate, and using more aggressive methods may stop the protests.”
Don’t minimize the diversity of the Din Daeng protestors
The continuous confrontations at Din Daeng in August from Thalufah to Thalugaz, which is a gathering of vocational college students, created images of protestors using violence. From Busarin’s perspective, she thinks that the vocational college students participated in the protests at the Din Daeng intersection since last year, their main role being guards, who are part of all the student marches attempting to reach Prayut’s residence. It is just that this year, the vocational college students were able to establish themselves while still sticking with the same tactic of marches. The vocational students may also have thought that the approach of the student marches did not meet their objectives. So they held their own activities, becoming independent from 18 August onwards.
Busarin explained further that in the earlier phase, the protests at the Din Daeng intersection started from a gathering of allies, with the vocational student group as one of them. But since the 18th, when faced with violence and face-offs with the police, they held their own protests.
“The movement at the Din Daeng intersection has no speeches. When they reach the area, they just throw things at the freight containers, whether it’s giant firecrackers, marbles, stones. Obviously, it’s a confrontational movement . When it’s like this, there is a likelihood that the police will respond. As we can see, the police are trying to separate the protestors; Thalufah can go ahead, peaceful protests in general can go ahead, but Din Daeng is not a good example. I think when the methods of the movement at Din Daeng intersection are like this, it has some impact on the perception or the use of force by the authorities.
“My observations of the Din Daeng protests are that the community is lower middle class and below with behaviour that people like to stereotype, considering vocational students as motorcycle racers. The society’s image of kids in this group is not very good. I once talked to police officers on the ground in the area, and they don’t feel okay with these people. When they have to face them, they feel scared, they feel that they are a different kind of person, marginalised people, so they came out like that,"
“With the trend toward the police holding no negotiations this year, although partly because the Din Daeng protests have no core leaders so they don’t know who to negotiate with, the police don’t show any signs of wanting to negotiate either. The violence tends to increase. There is no space for talks that will allow people to understand each other.”
However, we shouldn’t minimize the diversity of the protestors and stereotype them as all vocational college students.
“When we see photos in mass media, we’ll see confrontations, fights, firecrackers being set off, but in the Din Daeng area there is diversity. It’s not just vocational students. Some days there are high school students riding on motorcycles, so we can guess that they’re from lower middle class families affected economically.”
“I once talked with one of the kids aged about 19, dressed like a nice student according to society’s beauty standard. He said he likes to come and watch because he felt that the police deserve something like this. In the protest, there is a lot of diversity. It’s not just vocational students.”
Din Daeng intersection protest. Photo by Nontawat Numbenchapol
There are details in the violence
Busarin explained the conditions in the Din Daeng area. The freight containers used to set up a defence line are quite tall, so 80-90% of the objects thrown by protestors do not make it over. But when police officers respond with violence, they work from the base of the group of people throwing things.
Also, the officers have the belief that this group of protestors has no demands, just impulse. She noted that 300-500 protestors probably aren’t just ‘stubborn kids, motorcycle racers’ as the police think, but are from lower middle-class families that have been impacted economically.
“When there is no listening, it gets like this every day. People throw things. The police use water cannon. The police then shoot rubber bullets, which violates international standards – this only makes them angrier. Like on 23-24 August, when the police responded, their friends fell or they saw their friends hit by rubber bullets, they just got angrier and can’t find a way out. Each side fights each other until curfew. It’s like this every day, in a loop. They come out and throw things. The police respond. It goes on until curfew. Then everyone goes home. They don’t know how to find a way out.”
And again, the images of throwing things and confrontations may show that protestors are enraged at the police. Busarin says that the vocational students don’t view all police officers as the opposition. They may not be happy with the Crowd Control Police, but with traffic police doing their duty as normal, the protestors will act differently. Or when bricks were used to smash a traffic police booth on 10 August, there were no police officers inside. Busarin has not said that the protests at the Din Daeng intersection do not have any violence or destruction of property, but there are details that have to be considered, or in the case of the arson of a security booth.
“Saying it like this, someone may ask, how do I know that it was the protestors? But it’s someone among the protestors. It’s not like they suddenly just ran in and burned it. It may have been smashed up before the fire was lit, and someone tried to stop them. But emotions had already reached a certain point, so fires will be lit. You can see that they were a part of the protest,"
“Many of those who were throwing things, some mass media like Voice went to interview them, asking if they intended to take lives, or expected to cause injury. They answered that they didn’t want to take lives, and when they threw things, they didn’t reach the police. They set down lines from where they could throw and be able to get away in time,"
“One day I went to observe and saw that the Molotov cocktails they threw did not reach the police. Those observing behind the police lines also confirmed that the objects being thrown did not reach the police at all, but firecrackers can be launched quite far. They fall near the Crowd Control Police and the officers could get hit by fragments.”
At the same time, as an observer, Busarin wanted evidence from both sides. For example, in cases of injury, she needs to collect data on the injury as well as interviews on the situation, but in the case of injuries to police officers, there are obstacles in accessing data and the injured.
“Like on the 10th, there was an announcement that live bullets were used, a police officer was hit by a live bullet, and they carried the injured officer away. I asked if I could go take a look. They surrounded the area and didn’t allow me to see. It could be their limitation or their operational method, but I wanted to confirm by myself that they really were hurt. It’s not that I didn’t believe them, but every time the protestors get hurt, I always go in to ask because I really want clear evidence – but I have difficulties in collecting data on injuries to police officers.”
Talking as humans to humans
Images of confrontation and the suppression of protests is the surface that is easy to see. It is what is underneath that surface that reflects the causes of the phenomenon. Busarin says that the gathering of youths at the Din Daeng intersection started from frustration. Talking to some protestors taught her that they were having difficulties in life and their parents had lost their jobs.
“There was one person. I asked why he came. I asked if he had been severely affected, and he said yes, a lot, so much that he didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t express himself in a way that could make me understand, but from his attitude and facial expression, I knew that it must be very bad. When I asked if at home his parents were still working, he lowered his eyes and looked down at the ground, then answered with an abnormal voice that some had lost their jobs.
“An ordinary person who came to see said that they had never been interested in politics and had never been to a protest. The protest at the Din Daeng intersection was their first time. They became interested in politics because their families had been affected a lot. They had gone bankrupt, so they had to drop out of school so that their two younger siblings could stay in school while they worked to look after themselves.”
The frustrations of confronting the state’s refusal to listen may end up with results that nobody wants. If we want to stop, mitigate or delay the violence, talking, communicating and negotiating looks like being the best solution.
“At the Din Daeng intersection, it’s clear that the violence is increasing every day. The confrontations get more intense every day. It also looks like the police’s patience is getting thinner every day. I think we need to rely on an organisation that can open a space for both formal and informal negotiations, so that there is a channel for them to talk.
“These days it’s like this because they feel like they aren’t being listened to. Even now, people still think that Thalugaz have no demands. All the forces of the state or lawsuits cannot stop this conflict because it starts from economic injustice and political injustice. The use of force cannot solve this injustice, but opening up a space for the authorities to communicate, by allowing both sides to view each other as human beings, not ‘I’m the law enforcer’, ‘I’m the protestor’.”