Thai police use tear gas against anti-government protesters

BANGKOK – Thai police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons Sunday to disperse hundreds of anti-government protesters who held a rally in Bangkok despite coronavirus restrictions banning gatherings of more than five people.

The demonstrators were demanding Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government step down, insisting the budget of the monarchy and the military be cut during the pandemic, and calling for the importing mRNA coronavirus vaccines that have yet to be brought to Thailand on a large scale to fight a growing surge of the virus.

The rally came as Thailand recorded its largest single-day jump in virus infections — nearly 11,400 — and as fresh restrictions were announced such as the shut down of most domestic flights. Many parts of the country, including Bangkok, are already under some form of lockdown that includes restrictions on gatherings and business operations as well as a nighttime curfew.

As infections and deaths climb and as more people face economic suffering, disapproval of the government’s handling of the pandemic has grown.

Criticism of Prayuth’s government for failing to secure early and adequate vaccine supplies is widespread. Thailand mostly relies on two vaccines, including China’s Sinovac shot, which some studies indicate is less effective against the delta variant, which is currently wrecking havoc across Southeast Asia.

Thailand’s other main vaccine is AstraZeneca, which a Thai company owned by the country’s king has been producing, but only since June and in smaller than expected quantities.

Sunday’s rally was led by Free Youth, a student protest group that drew tens of thousands to its protests last year, when it had three main demands: that Prayuth’s government step down, the constitution be amended to make it more democratic and the nation’s monarchy become more accountable.

Jutatip Sirikhan, one of Free Youth’s main activists, charged in a phone interview with The Associated Press that many people have died from COVID-19 because of the lack of transparency and mismanagement of Prayuth and his Cabinet.

Thailand has recorded a total of 403,386 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 3,341 related deaths since the pandemic started. More than 90% of cases and deaths have occurred since April this year. This weekend daily virus deaths rose above 100 for the first time.

“If we don’t come out now, we don’t know how long we shall survive and whether we will have a chance to do it again,” she said of the virus and the protests.

The protesters started gathered at the capital’s Democracy Monument in the early afternoon, where organizers distributed N95 masks, medical gloves, sanitizer spray and raincoats to them before attempting to go to Government House, which hosts the prime minister’s offices.

Organizers also handed out mock corpses in white burial shrouds representing COVID-19 victims, which were later placed on the ground atop an image of Prayuth at an intersection near Government House and set alight. The eerie figures also evoked images of the bodies of several Thai activists who had apparently been kidnapped in 2019 from where they lived in exile in neighbouring Laos.

In an effort at avoiding the spread of infection, many of the protesters drove cars or rode motorbikes, instead of marching as they had in previous protests.

Around 1,500 riot police were deployed, along with water cannon trucks. Deputy National Police Spokesman Kissana Pattanacharoen acknowledged that the authorities used water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters after several warnings were given.

Reports of injuries were not complete, but the city’s Erawan Medical Center emergency services said two people were sent to the hospital from the protests, which the organizers called an end to before nightfall.

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