Protesters walk stroll at Din Daeng Intersection amidst the flare. (File photo, credit: Maew Som)

‘Nonviolence in my catapult’: protestors explain their use of force

These interviews with 5 among the many people who have clashed with Crowd Control Police at the Din Daeng intersection attempt to explain the motives behind the burning, explosions and firing at the police in a way that they still believe is nonviolent.

A protester fires a flare while another one raises middle finger at the police. (File photo, credit: Maew Som)

Protesters and Crowd Control Police have clashed at the Din Daeng intersection almost every night since August when pro-democracy protesters were blocked from approaching the residence of Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha located in the nearby 1st Infantry Regiment headquarters. 

News reports have shown an escalation of the use of force. Protesters have been seen shooting firecrackers and throwing home-made explosive devices and Molotov cocktails; the police have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, marbles and raids by police on motorcycles to arrest protesters.

The development of the pro-democracy protests from mostly nonviolent in 2020 into a prolonged heated confrontation is perplexing. Prachatai has talked to protesters at the confrontations at Din Daeng to gain a deeper insight into their background and to try to understand their motives in deliberately clashing with the police.

Korn (pseudonym), 18, in electronic sales, has recently enrolled in non-formal education after quitting school in the 3rd grade. Both by re-enrolling and coming to protest, he wants a better economy, employment opportunities and state welfare.

"I grew up in the time of slums, see? In my alley, there were some druggies. As a kid, I behaved pretty bad.

"At one point I had no money to go to school, so I dropped out," said Korn.

The economic storm has spared no one. He wants a better government which can solve the problem. 

"Back then, I could get a box of food for 30 baht, but now I buy it for 60. The price keeps going up. 100 baht isn’t enough to live even for a day, bro. Some things are just too much.

"I want General Prayut Chan-o-cha to resign. If he [Prayut] resigns, I will quit protesting, quit going to protests, work regularly and live normally.

"We are not here to play, to cause trouble. We just want them to know that what we have spoken about was not a bluff, and we’re not gathering as a joke. But we’ve come to talk about things that we’ve all wanted to talk about, but couldn’t."

Korn said he was chased by the police the first time he came to Din Daeng. Bare-handed, he fought with anything he could find at hand. Despite leaving the scene safely, he witnessed police brutality toward civilians.

“I saw a little kid, eh? was hit with a flashlight. They were fucking relentless hitting him, hitting again and again. Some kids were kicked by combat boots. Some women were shot. Old people walking by got fucking shot. They didn’t care, they just said their boss ordered them.”

File photo (credit: Maew Som)

After that day, Korn came back to Din Daeng with flares and explosives made of stones and gunpowder. Mixed and wrapped in paper and tape, they explode when thrown in order to delay the incoming police.

“I admit it’s nothing good. But I want to defend myself from being hurt. If we don’t do this, they have to shoot at us, hit us, stamp on us. Even if I get arrested, they will still fucking beat me up in the police station. This government has sucked forever, bro.”

Sam (Pseudonym), 28, unlike many other protesters, staged his demands in his own way when he first came to protest at Din Daeng, fighting with the police.

The first day he came, he was shot twice in the legs with rubber bullets. He was among the protesters who were taken down while riding on a motorcycle and arrested. His friend had dozens of rubber bullets fired at him from a distance of about 3 metres after he surrendered.

A moment when the police taking down the protesters on 22 August 2021. (Source: The Nation)

"I was kicked. Then they put me in a vehicle and took me to the police station. Everyone got hit. We have video clips to show you.

"Then they said ‘Come again another day’. They were challenging us," Sam recalled the incident.

Sam used to own a workshop, serving racers and fixing cars. The Covid-19 lockdown and curfew has badly hit all his customers as the racetracks have closed down and people tend to work from home. His 25,000 baht monthly income has shrunk to 15,000 as he changed his job to a company maintenance officer.

He wants his regular life back where kids can go to school and good quality vaccines are distributed to everyone.

"I wanted a good life, see? I want to have a garage, live a normal life, just keep fixing cars. When I get old, I will have an employee at the front and I will be the garage owner, not fixing things by myself. But now my life has been broken, bro.

"If it's the military and it's better than before, I'd accept it. I can accept it if things develop and not get worse. It doesn’t matter who it is, I want it to get better."

The protests at Din Daeng started with people chanting criticisms, then back and forth clashes as the police made arrests, with protesters letting off fireworks, using catapults and home-made explosives to fend them off. 

A protester cosplaying a Survey Corp from Shingeki no Kyojin manga pointed by a green laser. (File photo, credit: Maew Som)

Many see this kind of protest as violent but Sam sees it as an asymmetric response to escalating police brutality and that he does not aim to kill the police.

"At least it shows that we are not sitting idle, we’re not apathetic. If you still don’t care and keep silent, we will keep on doing this. As long as you are still there [in power], we will keep doing this.

“It also counts as nonviolence in my catapult.

"It's only a catapult, bro. You stand and shoot 3-4 times and your arms ache. But them, one magazine has 5 rubber bullets. When they’ve fired the lot, they reload in a flash. It's not tiring like for us."

A crowd control police fires a rubber bullet launcher during the raid. (File photo, credit: Maew Som)

He said the government should have public negotiations with the protesters and the Crowd Control Police should not initiate violence against protesters.

"Imagine if I had a wife and kids, and one day I was a crowd control policeman and my kids came and I didn't know. If my kids got beaten, my mind would be a mess."

Aey (pseudonym), 21, owns an online clothes shop. The Covid-19 pandemic took a huge toll on him when his income sharply declined and all 13 family members, including him, were infected in May.

Aey

"It was all bad. We fell apart, panicked. We were stressed and blamed ourselves. We were worried whether the people around us would catch the virus from us.

"It was grandma that had the virus down in her lungs. I did too but grandma had it harder because she had complications from other illnesses."

Fortunately, no one in the family died. But the income shrinking from 300 USD per month to less than 100 made him decide to sell his beloved T-shirt collectibles to survive.

As one of the affected majority, Aey went to the protest on 14 October 2020 to express his views. 

"We want a good future, for everyone. ... We want administrators to manage the country more effectively," said Aey.

He has been a protest guard in charge of directing people away from danger when confrontation arises. Despite never using explosive devices like his friends did, he quite understands the anger of the people who are suppressed.

"We protested peacefully. We were the guards looking after the people at the front. We hadn't even started anything at all but the police sprayed us with rubber bullets, sprayed us with tear gas, making the protesters angry.

"I'm angry, bro. Very angry. I feel like I want to fight back. It's not like we have to be the only ones being done in. It's not legitimate. What they did to the protesters was over the top." 

Protesters hide themselves while one shot out a flare. (File photo, credit: Maew Som)

Despite his anger, he questions those who randomly let off explosions and set fire to things. He was afraid that the protesters around would be the ones who took more casualties than the police. He believes that those people are radical groups who do not understand why people are coming to protest.

"Resistance should be to fend off the police. We don't need to take lives. We're all Thais."

M (pseudonym), an engineering student whose family and himself are affected by the economic impact. Like Aey, his family were infected by Covid-19 and had their lives thrown into mayhem as it took months for the family to be treated.

Fortunately, no one died.

"I had to move out of my home to find somewhere else so that I didn’t get infected myself. I have one grandma who is very old. Dad and Mom were sent to hospital, Dad to hospital and Mom to a field hospital. Dad has a serious infection in the lungs. He had 4 X-rays."

M

M witnessed the first crackdown on 16 October 2020 when water cannon and tear gas were first used against the pro-democracy protests that had sprung up in July. After witnessing escalating police use of force against the protests, he finds no-retaliation measures cannot apply to every circumstance.

"The term ‘nonviolence’ is okay, but it can’t be used everywhere. ... I'm one of the vocational students, perhaps a radical, but if you ask me about nonviolence, yes, we’ve used it. But after what I've experienced in many protests, I’ve changed my mind.

"Not using non-violence to me means fighting back, standing and fighting. But it doesn't mean killing or causing fatal injuries. We fight back because we want the police to know that the people know how to fight. The people will fight and won't tolerate threats."

As a protest guard, M and friends fend off incoming police by throwing objects and shooting marbles by catapult. He believes that what he does can’t be compared to what the police have done.

At Din Daeng, M and fellow vocational students acted as guards under the name "Set Zero". The first time they faced off with the police, 3 of them fainted and 1 was hit by rubber bullets.

He shares Aey's conviction about the people who set fire to things. He thought that it would become the reason for dispersing the protest. Despite having the knowledge to craft hand-made pistols like other students, he thinks using such weapons would not do any good. Only improving the administration can lead to a peaceful transition.

"If we have real guns, we shoot the police dead, I predict that it will surely lead to a coup. When there's a coup, everyone loses, and will come out to fight. I see a fight to the death and losses on both sides.

"The failing administration should quit and let the people come in who are more efficient, have more knowledge about politics than soldiers."

T (pseudonym), a mechanics student who became a delivery rider, brought flare bars to Din Daeng to prevent police from approaching the protesters. He said he has been hit by a police baton in a protest in the past.

T

"We sometimes do not have to aim at them directly. We only want them to retreat in order to get the people out. Some people are just not part of it, because many were caught by stray shots. I have asked them if they could step back first and we could get the people out. They wouldn’t, so we had to shoot off a few fireworks."

T also finds it unacceptable for people to use explosive devices while riding motorbikes. He’s thinking of the firecrackers because they caused panic among people when they threw firecrackers or said that the police were coming, creating more chaos. 

"Mostly, from what I observed, the delinquents like to go first. At Din Daeng junction, I saw only the delinquents start it. Bang, bang, and then they retreated.

"I think the people may get hurt, because the important thing is to get people out. Because we are guards, we have to take care of the people's safety.

T wanted the police to approach the protesters in a peaceful manner.

"Everyone belongs to the people. You are also people. You take off your uniform, you are the people, like us. I know it's your income, it's the government system, I understand some of the police. But some just do it for fun as far as I can see.

"Please do not use so much violence against the people," is T’s message to the police.

Some of the interview are brought from a "Sound of ‘Din’ Daeng Prologue" documentary by Nontawat Numbenchapol.

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