As protests led by Thai youth gain momentum after strict COVID-19 lockdowns have muzzled the freedom to assemble peacefully for months, media coverage of recent rallies has focused overwhelmingly on clashes between protesters and police, describing the protests as a battlefield with gasoline bombs and fireworks set off on one side, and the repeated use of tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets from the other.
However, these media reports unfairly portray the mostly peaceful protests and distract from the still brutal treatment of child protesters by Thai police.
Many of the students gathering at Bangkok’s Din Daeng intersection – a key site of recent protests – are in their early teens, with some as young as 11. Some have lost their parents to COVID-19 and have dropped out of school or work as they struggle to cope. Yet authorities continue to violently attack student protesters and others, criticizing their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic or pushing for online reforms.
A year after youth-led protests flooded the streets of Bangkok – yellow rubber ducks, school uniforms and Harry Potter costumes appeared in mass protests calling for social reform – the situation has turned to increasingly worrying in recent months, with record numbers of peaceful student leaders arrested, beaten by police and deprived of bail. The authorities continue to detain children, including without judicial review.
Since the protests began last year, at least 226 children are among hundreds of people prosecuted for peacefully demonstrating and expressing their views. Authorities are prosecuting more than 1,458 people, including 111 accused of sedition and a record 145 accused of royal defamation – crimes punishable by prison terms of up to 15 years. In rare cases, protesters risk life in prison.
I myself observed these protests and witnessed the excessive and indiscriminate use of force. I saw water cannons explode not only on demonstrators but also on passing pedestrians. I felt tear gas burn my eyes as the police tried to instill fear in the demonstrators. As night falls, explosive sounds slice the air as fully equipped police rain rubber bullets on protesters, as if attacking an enemy. These scenes take place in virtual silence from the international community. The violations by the Thai authorities of their international human rights obligations must be condemned.
Videos that went viral on social media showed police officers shooting rubber bullets at protesters at close range or hitting them with batons. Another clip showed a policeman kicking a tied man in the face. On at least one occasion, live ammunition was used at the Din Daeng intersection, leaving a protester in a coma. Police denied using live ammunition.
The authorities are increasingly willing to flout 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 up in this crackdown, there is an urgent need for Thai authorities to take concrete and meaningful action to prohibit and punish the use of excessive force in dispersing protests.
Authorities have tried to justify their use of excessive force to disperse recent protests by citing the need to apply emergency restrictions to stem the spread of COVID-19. Yet in August, the Thai civil court blocked the government’s attempt to use emergency powers to introduce internet bans and threaten to jail anyone caught criticizing the state’s handling of the pandemic online. The court also called on the police to exercise restraint when using crowd control devices such as tear gas and rubber bullets, but nothing has changed.
Just days ago, Amnesty International Thailand spoke to a 16-year-old boy indicted by a Bangkok juvenile court. He said a police officer hit his head with a pistol after arresting him for participating in protests on October 6. The policeman then attempted to break her finger and burn her cigarettes in her left hand.
In recent months, 10 peaceful leaders of student protests have been arrested after being arrested a second time for their involvement in protests and have been repeatedly denied bail. Amnesty International has expressed fears for the safety of detainees, the majority of whom are now held in a quarantine prison.
Accused of stepping up their crackdown on those who peacefully exercise their human rights, Thai authorities say police tactics comply with international human rights law. However, their increasingly brutal treatment of peaceful student protesters reveals a different reality.
As the government gradually lifts the country’s strictest virus prevention protocols, it needs to radically rethink its approach to ongoing protests in the country. With growing public anger over the government’s handling of the pandemic, its crackdown on protests and bleak economic prospects, frustrated protesters will continue to exercise their right to freedom of peaceful assembly on the streets. Their voices deserve to be heard.
Thai authorities can remedy the situation by immediately dropping all wrongful charges against peaceful protesters, regulating the use of force by police to comply with international standards, allowing people to freely express their views without fear and by ceasing their incessant attacks against child demonstrators. It is absolutely imperative that other governments encourage them to do so.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.