Bangkok, Thailand – Before revealing scars across his body, Gap* glances up at a group of police officers watching closely from across the street. It is only 7pm, but security forces in the area are already on high alert.
“The cops 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 Bangkok’s second largest slum community. These days the district — a highrise slum community dense with dilapidated buildings of government housing — appears more like a war zone. A few metres away from the table where Gap is sitting, dozens of cops in bulletproof vests are on patrol armed with shotguns loaded with rubber bullets, and handguns loaded with live ammunition.
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Over 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 who call themselves Thalugas (breaking through the gas/tear gas).
After more than a year of anti-government rallies — at which protesters’ calls for democracy and the reform of the powerful monarchy appear to have fallen largely on deaf ears — they are stepping up the pressure on the administration of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
For about three months, as soon as the sun falls, these young men have been skirmishing with police and the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has given their struggle new momentum. The violence has subsided to some degree since July, but at about 7pm every night, young protesters taunt police with middle fingers, screaming insults from their motorcycles. Eventually, tensions escalate into violence as demonstrators aim fireworks at groups of police officers who occupy the area. Police then respond with sweeping 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, as negligent.
The sense of frustration is deeply felt within the protesters’ communities, where the mostly young men are without jobs and struggle to support family members who are sometimes sick with coronavirus.
“I want people who are hurting, people who are struggling, to receive help,” Gap explained. “I need the government to finally pay attention. My wife got fired from her job, my child is now struggling with his education. My bike was also taken by debt collectors. Honestly, at this point, I can barely feed my family.”
Young demonstrators like Gap have set fire to traffic lights and massive portraits of the Thai King Vajiralongkorn that are scattered throughout the city. The protesters target police with slingshots, small explosives called “ping pong bombs”, firebombs, and whatever rudimentary weapons they can get their hands on.
In response, police have unleashed rubber bullets, water cannons, and tear gas.
The protesters have, in turn, found new ways to protect themselves from the police.
“I’m a labour type, I know how to make things with my hands,” said another Thalugas protester who goes by the nickname, Woody. “So I found my role in this by making gear to protect us. First I started making banners and signs. But now I build shields that are even stronger than the police shields.”
He explains that the unrest started with the second wave of the coronavirus.
In August, the COVID-19 situation began deteriorating so rapidly – the country was reporting an average of 20,000 daily cases compared with single digits the year before – that a total lockdown was imposed on the Thai capital to stop hospitals from being overwhelmed.
Woody says the impact of the lockdown was catastrophic for his family and that the government provided too little support to the people in Din Daeng.
Last year, low-income citizens got cash payments of about $100 during the early months of the pandemic. But this time, the money appears to have dried up, Woody said.
Then, in the middle of August, three teenagers were shot with live rounds.
One of the boys was put 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 wounds. Amnesty International has called for an urgent investigation into the shootings and it remains unclear where the rounds were fired from.
“My younger friend got shot in the head by a real bullet,” Gap said, his voice cracking with emotion. “He didn’t make it. Of course, I was extremely angry, then that anger turned to depression. After that I just wanted revenge.”
The Thalugas protesters are convinced that the teens were shot by police. The other boys, the first aged 14, suffered a bullet wound in the shoulder, while the third, who is 16, was shot in the foot. Both recovered.
Still, according to Royal Thai Police spokesman Krissana Pattanacharoen, law enforcement only responds with force when the public is in danger. He says the police have taken all international standards into consideration and support the rights of the protesters.
“When the violence occurs, it affects the lives of all people living in the area so we have to be out there to ensure that people are protected,” Krissana told Al Jazeera. “Although we are committed to law and order, there may have been some cases where police made mistakes. In these cases, we use disciplinary action and adjust our approach.”
Challenging the ‘elite’
One of Thailand’s rising democracy activists, Tanat “Luknat ” Thanakitamnuay, has emerged as 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 out of challenging that traditional elite.
He says the violence was inevitable because the protesters feel abandoned by those in power.
“You push people over the edge of what they can accept, then what do you expect?” 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’ve always been viewed as society’s lost cause by their own government.”
Luknut understands the violence at the protests more than most.
In August, he was hit in the face with what appeared to be a tear gas canister from police. Now, blind in his right eye, he warns the international community about what he says is the police’s impulse to brutality.
The security forces have a history of bloody crackdowns, including the 1976 killings of student activists at Thammasat University and the shooting of civilians after months of anti-government protests shut down much of the capital in 2010.
Human rights groups say those responsible are rarely brought to justice, but that the situation at Din Daeng is looking more like a police occupation.
“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 repression in full force,” Sunai Phasuk, a Thailand researcher with Human Rights Watch told Al Jazeera. “That said, police have to date deployed hundreds of officers to occupy the neighbourhood and prevent protesters from grouping together. There have been arrests. Rough ones. But no large-scale clashes or repressions.”
‘Nothing to lose’
Back in Din Daeng, the explosions grow louder as the night wears on. The police appear 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 of them said they had sustained some kind of injury from being beaten by police, shot with nonlethal weapons, while others claim the police are firing live rounds.
But the young men reflect a tiny fraction of the estimated 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 for the unrest taking place in Din Daeng.
Another 20-year-old protester, who goes by the nickname Tee, explained that the protesters will not stop until their demands are met. He adds that the young men have developed a deep sense of camaraderie, a brotherhood forged through violence and desperate times.
“We fight here everyday,” he said. “We normally 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 that they tried to protest peacefully for more than a year, but the non-violent approach was not working.
At the same time, some of the young men are aware that the use of violence carries risks in advancing the wider democracy 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 from Twitter or Facebook.
He said his fellow Thalugas work mostly in low-paid jobs as mechanics and food delivery drivers and have seen their incomes halved to an average of about $250 a month because of the pandemic.
“We have nothing else to lose, we’re already at the bottom,” Tee said.
“We can’t let the government ignore us anymore. They must pay attention to us.”