A rubber bullet cost me an eye at a protest, but I am still protesting

My ordeal convinced me to fight harder for justice, and demand more from our leaders – including better protections for peaceful protesters.

What happened to me should not happen to others writes Payu Boonsophon [Chanakarn Laosarakham]

I am a 29-year-old environmental activist from Chaiyaphum, Thailand. I have a passion for people power and a deeply held belief in the pivotal role protests play in enacting positive change. For many years, I have been taking to the streets with fellow activists to draw attention to the ongoing war on Thailand’s natural resources and demand constructive action from our political leaders.

Two years ago, I paid a steep price for my activism.

At a protest for environmental justice and human rights outside the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok, a police officer fired rubber bullets onto the crowd. One of these projectiles penetrated my eyeball. I lost sight in that eye instantly.

That bullet changed my life completely and forced me to relearn the most basic life skills. It did not, however, affect my passion for the environment or belief in the power of protest. In fact, it convinced me to fight harder for environmental justice, and demand more from our leaders – including better protections for peaceful protesters.

On the day that I was shot, I was at the APEC summit to protest the intergovernmental forum’s recent approval of the military-dominated Thai government’s greenwashing Bio-Circular-Green Economy (BCG) Policy. My fellow protesters and I knew the policy would intensify the exploitation of Thailand’s natural resources and wanted to confront the APEC delegates directly about the harm they were inflicting on the lives of everyday people in Thailand.

At first, the protest seemed like any other. Riot police were there to control the crowd as usual, but we did not feel threatened. We had no weapons – only banners and a sound system – and were not posing a threat to anyone.

When it became clear that the police would not allow us to come any closer to the summit venue, we decided to approach the officers on the front line to try and negotiate a solution. We told them that we did not want to cause harm to anyone and were only there to advocate for the environment. They did not listen and started arguing with us – threatening us.

“Hey you, the one wearing the helmet,” one of the officers told me, “You will get a lesson, definitely. Prepare yourself.”

Soon after this threat, police started using their batons on the protesters. Out of anger or by mistake, one officer shot a rubber bullet on the ground, which bounced off and hit a protester.

Suddenly, we were scared. Something was off – this was not normal practice. Accepting that we won’t be allowed to move closer to the summit venue, we decided to continue with our protest where we were. After a short break for lunch, we started our “cursing ritual” – a symbolic act that involves burning dried chilli peppers and salt on a stove.

When we finished, we put the charcoal grill we used in our ritual on a police car. The fire in the portable grill was already extinguished, but the police directed their water cannon at it anyway.

The protesters who got hit by pressured water became upset, and clashes erupted. Several police officers started shooting rubber bullets and using their batons on protesters. A few officers tried to calm their colleagues down and put an end to the violence, but no one listened. It was clear that commanders had completely lost control of the situation.

At one point, several officers started to shoot rubber bullets at a car in which several protesters were shielding. I was worried that the glass would break and harm the protesters, so I rushed there to help them.

As I moved towards them, I looked back for a second, and a rubber bullet hit me in the eye.

At first, I didn’t understand what had happened. It was a hot day, and I could feel cold blood running down my neck, but I was not yet aware of the extent of my injury. I could hear a buzzing noise so I touched my face to try and understand what was causing it. I noticed a lot of blood was coming out of my eye. An officer approached me and told me to go to an ambulance.

It was then that I realised I was seriously injured.

On my way to the hospital, I fleetingly worried whether I’d see from that eye again, but I did not panic. We had conducted a risk assessment before the protest, and I was mentally prepared. During that journey, I thought not about myself but about my family and how they would react to my injury.

My grandparents, who raised me, have been concerned about my activism for years since I first joined a non-violent protest group to support communities affected by coal mines as a student. I really did not want them to be upset.

Once we reached the hospital, my treatment began immediately. I did not have time to worry about anything.

My grandparents later told me that when they first heard that I had been hit in the eye with a rubber bullet, they feared that I would die. They said they wanted to donate their eyes to me because they feared even if I survived, my disability would prevent me from working and I would no longer be accepted in society.

Thankfully, after completing my treatment and returning home, I was able to show them that I could still live a normal life.

Of course, recovery was not easy. Since I had lost sight in one eye, some basic activities were very difficult for me to perform. My perception of distance and depth was off. I would often fail to grasp items that I wanted to pick up. I had to learn to use my body again and rebuild confidence.

My biggest worry in those early days was that I may not be able to drive again. I love driving. I’ve always wanted to race cars and own a garage. In the early days of recovery, I truly worried that I lost that dream for good.

Now, I am once again able to drive. In fact, I am once again able to do almost all the things that I love and bring me joy. I would say I am 90 percent back to normal.

Most importantly, I am once again able to attend protests.

Indeed, the experiences I had did not break my trust in the importance and power of protest. After everything I have been through, everything that I have lost, I still believe protest is the only tool people have to make their leaders listen to them.

In my country, Thailand, people have been oppressed for a long time. Our natural resources have been snatched, and we have been left with little control over our lives and livelihoods. We have no power and no real voice. We urgently need a new constitution that gives more power to the people and their elected representatives in the local government.

We have tried to communicate this to our government, we reported problems and concerns through the channels made available to us, but the authorities never listened or took any action. The only thing that ever worked, the only thing that ever pushed those with power to do something – the bare minimum –  has been protest.

This is why I believe, even after losing an eye to a police officer’s rubber bullet, protest is the most essential tool of people power.

In Thailand, like many other countries across the world, protesters are not safe. Peaceful protesters practicing their democratic rights and advocating for the environment are being prosecuted. Worse, they are being subjected to police violence, like I once was.

What happened to me should not happen to others. People should be able to peacefully protest without fear. The Thai government, like all others, needs to ensure the people that policing of protests is compatible with international human rights law and standards. It needs to hold accountable police officials for unlawful use of force and ensure an effective remedy for all victims.

To this end, Amnesty International is calling for governments to vote yes on a Torture-Free Trade Treaty at the United Nations which aims to regulate the trade in policing equipment to ensure weapons like rubber bullets, water canons and batons do not end up in the hands of abusive police forces.

As someone who has been harmed irreversibly by a rubber bullet, I wholeheartedly support this call. Progress happens when we come together to demand change. Let’s work together to ensure no protester, anywhere, is forced to go through what I have been through.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.