Bangkok, thailand – Before revealing scars all over his body, Gap * looks at a group of police officers who are watching him closely from across the street. It is only 7pm, but the security forces in the area are already on high alert.
“The police have shot me many times,” the 23-year-old, who prefers to use his nickname, told Al Jazeera from a small roadside restaurant in Din Daeng, the heart of the second-largest slum community. from Bangkok. These days, the district – a high-rise slum community with dilapidated government housing buildings – looks more like a war zone. A few meters from the table where Gap is sitting, dozens of police in bulletproof vests patrol armed with shotguns loaded with rubber bullets and pistols loaded with live ammunition.
Above Gap’s voice, the sound of explosions occasionally echoes in the distance. “Those are our brothers,” he said.
Gap is part of a new group of protesters calling themselves Thalugas (breaking gas / tear gas).
After more than a year of anti-government demonstrations, in which protesters’ calls for democracy and reform of the powerful monarchy appear to have largely fallen on deaf ears, they are intensifying pressure on the administration of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan. -ocha. .
For about three months, as soon as the sun goes down, these young people have skirmished with the police and the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has given new impetus to their fight. Violence has decreased to some extent since July, but around 7 p.m. every night, young protesters taunt the police with their middle fingers and yell insults from their motorcycles. Finally, tensions turn into violence when protesters aim fireworks at groups of police occupying the area. The police then respond with radical and often violent arrests.
Many resent what they see as the government’s mishandling of the pandemic and accuse Prayuth, who led the 2014 coup as army chief, of negligence.
The sense of frustration runs deep within the protesting communities, where most young men are out of work and struggling to provide for family members who are sometimes sick with coronavirus.
“I want the people who are suffering, the people who are struggling, to receive help,” explained Gap. “I need the government to finally pay attention. My wife was laid off from her job, my son is now struggling with his education. Debt collectors also took my bike. Honestly, at this point, I can barely feed my family. “
Young protesters like Gap have set fire to traffic lights and massive portraits of Thai King Vajiralongkorn that are scattered throughout the city. Protesters aim at police with slingshots, small explosives called “ping pong bombs”, incendiary bombs and any rudimentary weapons they may have in their hands.
In response, the police have unleashed rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas.
The protesters, in turn, have found new ways to protect themselves from the police.
“I’m the Labor type, I know how to do things with my hands,” said another Thalugas protester who goes by the nickname Woody. “So I found my role in this by teaming up to protect us. First I started making banners and posters. But now I build shields that are even stronger than police shields. “
Explain that the riots began with the second wave of the coronavirus.
In August, the COVID-19 situation began to deteriorate so rapidly (the country was reporting an average of 20,000 cases a day compared to single digits the previous year) that a total lockdown was imposed on the Thai capital to prevent hospitals from collapsing. overwhelm.
Woody says the impact of the lockdown was catastrophic for his family and that the government provided very little support to the people of Din Daeng.
Last year, low-income citizens received cash payments of about $ 100 during the first months of the pandemic. But this time, the money seems to have run out, Woody said.
Then, in mid-August, three teenagers were shot with live bullets.
One of the children fell into a coma when a bullet struck him in the head, according to his doctors. Gap was close to the 15-year-old who was shot and says the boy recently died as a result of his injuries. Amnesty International has called for an urgent investigation into the shooting and it is unclear from where the bullets were fired.
“My youngest friend was shot in the head with a live bullet,” Gap said, his voice cracking with emotion. “He did not succeed. Of course, he was extremely angry, then that anger turned into depression. After that, he just wanted revenge. “
The Thalugas protesters are convinced that the police shot the teenagers. The other boys, the first 14, suffered a gunshot wound to the shoulder, while the third, 16, was shot in the foot. They both recovered.
Still, according to Royal Thai Police spokesperson Krissana Pattanacharoen, law enforcement agencies only respond forcefully when the public is in danger. It says that the police have taken into account all international standards and support the rights of protesters.
“When violence happens, it affects the lives of everyone who lives in the area, so we have to be there to make sure people are protected,” Krissana told Al Jazeera. “Although we are committed to law and order, there may have been some cases where the police made mistakes. In these cases, we use disciplinary measures and adjust our approach. “
Challenging the ‘elite’
One of Thailand’s rising democracy activists, Tanat “Luknat” Thanakitamnuay, has become an unlikely ally of the Thalugas. The activist and political figure comes from an extremely wealthy background with previous ties to the country’s military-backed establishment.
Today he has made a political career challenging that traditional elite.
He says the violence was inevitable because the protesters feel abandoned by those in power.
“You push people to the limit of what they can accept, so what are you waiting for?” Luknat said about the Thalugas protesters.
“These are often the people who have always been victims of our society,” he said. “They are people who have nothing, their parents have been victims of this society, their grandparents have been victims of this society. They have always been seen as the lost cause of society by their own government. “
Luknut understands the violence in protests more than most.
In August, he was hit in the face with what appeared to be a tear gas canister from the police. Now, blind in his right eye, he is warning the international community about what he says is the police push for brutality.
The security forces have a history of bloody crackdowns, including the killings of student activists at Thammasat University in 1976 and the shooting of civilians after months of anti-government protests that closed off much of the capital in 2010.
Human rights groups say those responsible are rarely brought to justice, but that the situation in Din Daeng looks more like a police occupation.
“The police now refer to the Din Daeng protesters as ‘insurgents’, which is alarming as it indicates that their operations are no longer about crowd control but about full force repression,” he told Al Jazeera Sunai Phasuk, Thai researcher for Human Rights Watch. That said, the police to date have deployed hundreds of officers to occupy the neighborhood and prevent the protesters from gathering. There have been arrests. Hard But there are no clashes or large-scale repressions. “
‘Nothing to lose’
Back in Din Daeng, the explosions get louder as the night progresses. The police seem more nervous, questioning Gap’s group and asking what they were doing.
Of the six Thalugas protesters Al Jazeera spoke to, four had already been arrested and released. All said they had suffered some kind of injury from being beaten by the police, shot with non-lethal weapons, while others claimed that the police were firing live bullets.
But the youth reflect a small fraction of the roughly 1,500 people who have been arrested on protest-related charges since the democracy protests began in July last year, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a legal group that tracks arrests. The group also says that hundreds have been arrested since September alone, largely because of the riots taking place in Din Daeng.
Another protester in his 20s, who goes by the nickname Tee, explained that the protesters will not stop until their demands are met. He adds that young people have developed a deep sense of camaraderie, a brotherhood forged through violence and desperate times.
“We fight here every day,” he said. “We usually start right under that bridge over there,” he says, pointing to an intersection a short distance away that has become the heart of the urban conflict.
Tee said they tried to protest peacefully for more than a year, but the non-violent approach didn’t work.
At the same time, some of the young people are aware that the use of violence carries risks for the advancement of the broader democratic movement in Thailand.
The clashes have deterred many from joining the protest movement in recent months.
Tee feels it is a luxury to be able to choose to stay home and protest on Twitter or Facebook.
He said his fellow Thalugas work primarily in low-paying jobs as mechanics and food delivery drivers and have seen their income cut in half to an average of $ 250 a month due to the pandemic.
“We have nothing else to lose, we are already at the bottom,” Tee said.
“We cannot let the government ignore us anymore. They must pay attention to us ”.