As Thailand’s youth-led protests gather momentum after strict COVID-19 closures muzzled the freedom to assemble peacefully for months, newspaper coverage of recent demonstrations has overwhelmingly focused on clashes between protesters and the police, portraying the demonstrations as a battlefield with gasoline bombs and fireworks unleashed. on the one hand, and the repeated use of tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets on the other.
However, these media reports unfairly describe the mostly peaceful demonstrations and distract from the constant and brutal treatment of child protesters by the Thai police.
Many students gathering at Bangkok’s Din Daeng intersection, a key site of recent protests, are in their teens, and some are as young as 11 years old. Some have lost their parents to COVID-19 and have dropped out of school or work while struggling to get ahead. . However, authorities continue to violently lash out at student protesters and others who criticize their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic or push for reforms online.
A year after youth-led protests flooded the streets of Bangkok (yellow rubber ducks, school uniforms and Harry Potter costumes appeared in mass demonstrations calling for social reform), the situation has become increasingly sinister in the past months, with a record number of peaceful students. leaders arrested, beaten by the police and denied bail. The authorities continue to detain children, even without judicial review.
Since the protests began last year, at least 226 children are among the hundreds of people facing legal proceedings for peacefully protesting and expressing their opinions. Authorities are taking legal action against more than 1,458 people, including 111 accused of sedition and a record high of 145 accused of royal defamation, crimes that carry jail terms of up to 15 years. On rare occasions, protesters face life in prison.
I myself observed these protests and witnessed the excessive and indiscriminate use of force. I saw water cannons fired not only at protesters but also at passing pedestrians. I felt tear gas burning my eyes as the police tried to instill fear in the protesters. As night falls, explosive sounds split the air as fully equipped police officers fire rubber bullets at the protesters, as if attacking an enemy. These scenes unfold almost silently from the international community. Violations by the Thai authorities of their international human rights obligations must be condemned.
Videos that went viral on social media showed police firing rubber bullets at protesters at point-blank range or beating them with batons. Another clip showed a police officer kicking an immobilized man in the face. On at least one occasion, actual rounds were used at the Din Daeng intersection, leaving a protester in a eat. Police have denied using real bullets.
The authorities are increasingly willing to trample on human rights to silence peaceful dissent. They also refuse to offer meaningful dialogue to try to understand why people are protesting. And with children among those caught in this tide of repression, there is an urgent need for the Thai authorities to take concrete and meaningful steps to prohibit and punish the use of excessive force in dispersing protests.
Authorities have tried to justify the excessive use of force to disperse recent protests by citing the need for emergency restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19. However, in August, Thailand’s Civil Court blocked the government’s attempt to use emergency powers to introduce internet bans and threaten to jail anyone caught sharing criticism of the state’s handling of the pandemic online. The court also asked the police to exercise restraint in using crowd control devices, such as tear gas and rubber bullets, but nothing changed.
Just a few days ago, Amnesty International Thailand spoke with a 16-year-old accused in a juvenile court in Bangkok. He said a police officer hit him on the head with a pistol after arresting him for participating in the protests on October 6. The officer then tried to break his finger and burned cigarettes in his left hand.
In recent months, 10 peaceful student protest leaders have been detained after being arrested a second time for their participation in demonstrations, and have been repeatedly denied bail. Amnesty International has expressed concern for the safety of the detainees, most of whom are now being held in a quarantine prison.
When accused of intensifying the crackdown on those who peacefully exercise their human rights, Thai authorities say the police tactics comply with international human rights law. However, his increasingly brutal treatment of peaceful protesting students reveals a different reality.
As the government gradually lifts the country’s strictest virus prevention protocols, it needs to radically rethink its approach to the ongoing protests in the country. With mounting public anger over the government’s handling of the pandemic, its crackdown on protests, and a bleak economic outlook, frustrated protesters will continue to exercise their right to freedom of peaceful assembly in the streets. Their voices deserve to be heard.
Thai authorities can remedy the situation by immediately dropping all unjustified charges against peaceful protesters, regulating the use of force by the police to comply with international standards, allowing people the right to freely express their opinions without fear. and ending their relentless assault on child protesters. It is absolutely imperative that other governments encourage them to do so.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.