A worsening COVID crisis has renewed anti-government protests in the Thai capital, Bangkok.
Bangkok, Thailand – Protesters once again turned out onto the streets of Bangkok, calling for reforms to the Thai monarchy and the military government.
With thousands in attendance, Sunday’s rally was one of the biggest protests in recent months, despite being temporarily disrupted by rain.
Small-scale demonstrations have been a constant fixture, particularly in Bangkok’s Din Daeng neighbourhood, some of which have led to clashes with police.
It was at one of these protests that a teenage boy was shot in the head in August, leaving him in a coma for two months before he eventually died last week.
One of the main themes of Sunday’s demonstration was to call for the repeal of Section 112, a draconian piece of legislation that criminalises criticism of the king.
While it was once taboo to call for reforms to the monarchy, young protesters are becoming increasingly bold in their demands.
At the protest, a man in a Squid Game costume stalked the street holding a sign that read: “Abolish 112. Abolish fear. Abolish indifference. Abolish hopelessness.”
Amnesty International, a global rights watchdog, was on the ground collecting signatures for a petition, demanding the release of prominent activists who have been arrested and charged under the law.
A trio of female drummers pounded a war beat with stickers on their instruments showing “112” in a circle with a line through it.
The group first began playing at protests about one year ago, with no prior experience.
“At first we were drumming just buckets but it was a waste because we kept destroying them,” said one member, a 20-year-old, who added that somebody generously donated the drums they use today.
When asked why she decided to become involved in political activism, she laughed and gave a one-word answer: “Anger.”
“We have to do something against what the government has done to the Thai people,” said one of her companions. “We can have a bright future.”
This was a common sentiment on display at the protest among young people, who made up the bulk of the participants.
“We can’t see our future if we stay under the regime of dictatorship and monarchy,” said another 20-year-old protester, who identified herself as Jib.
“We want to have a voice, we want the government to work for us, not the king … We want humans to be equal.”
One of her friends, a 19-year-old, said protesters have been reinvigorated by the government’s recent decision to reopen the country to tourists.
As of November 1, visitors from more than 60 countries can enter Thailand without quarantining, if they are fully vaccinated.
“We want the tourists to see what’s happening in Thailand. Thailand is never the land of smiles, it’s just the land of lies,” he said, referring to a common tourism slogan.
Uniting protest groups
Before the demonstration, a protest coordinator for a group called the People’s Revolutionary Alliance (PRA) told Al Jazeera activists are making increasing efforts to bring various protest groups together, including those from Din Daeng.
Identifying himself by the nom de guerre “Stray Cat”, he said the protest this weekend was meant to call for the repeal of the lese-majeste law, demand more equitable vaccine distribution, and try to unite different protest groups.
He said organising demonstrations has been challenging, both because different protest groups have different objectives and tactics, and because of legal pressure.
“The PRA has decided to form a group of people who want to rise up to determine their own lives. This is a self-determination process, but it is difficult at first and appears to be unsuccessful,” he said, attributing the slow progress to lack of familiarity in the wider public with “network collaboration”.
“Each group has its own mark and objectives,” he said.
Stray Cat also said some people who agree with the protesters’ objectives may be afraid to turn out because of increasingly harsh rhetoric and legal threats from the government.
This includes declaring protesters “terrorists” and threatening to charge them under Section 113 for allegedly attempting to overthrow the government – a government Stray Cat calls a “monarchist dictatorship”.
But this did not seem to be too much of a problem on Sunday, as many protesters turned out from different activist groups and generations.
The older generation was also strongly represented, many wearing tell-tale red shirts, originally a sign of allegiance to overthrown Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed from power in a military coup in 2006.
Prominent Red Shirt activist Anurak Janetawanich, 53, told Al Jazeera he is encouraged by the growing signs of cooperation between student protesters and older activists.
“This year we see the students and the Red Shirts can get closer and fight together … The power of democracy will grow bigger and bigger.”
‘No sign of change’
He said he supports the young people’s calls for monarchy reform, saying it is the best way to bring democracy to Thailand.
“As long as the monarchy does not change, the problem will happen again and again and again. My children, my grandchildren will face the same thing,” he said.
“At the moment, there is no sign of change. But I support the right to fight. Maybe tomorrow there will be change, maybe next year we will be successful, but we need to fight.”
Stray Cat took a similarly long-term view of the situation, using Myanmar as an inspiration.
He pointed to the failed uprising against the military there in 1988, and the far more successful resistance that has emerged since the Myanmar military’s latest coup in February.
“This may be the first year of the uprising [in Thailand]. But definitely not the last year. And it will go to the breaking point between the state and its citizens,” he said.