A massive rally of pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok ended with dozens injured and many arrested on Saturday, March 20. Hundreds of armed police personnel were deployed to violently disperse the crowd at a rally held outside the royal palace. The demonstration was called by the youth-led REDEM (Restart Democracy) and saw more than 1,500 people participate.
The protest rally, which started off peacefully on Saturday, congregated at the Ratchadamnoen Avenue near the iconic open square, Sanam Luang, outside the royal palace. The protesters were met with a barricade set up by the police with empty cargo containers at the avenue, blocking access to the palace. As some protesters tried to push through the barricade in the evening, the police unleashed violence on the crowd.
The dispersal of the crowd, which was described as bloody by local media outlets, saw the police reportedly firing rubber bullets indiscriminately at the crowd, which also injured journalists and some police personnel as well. According to Prachatai, the nearest hospital to the site of protest, Erawan Medical Centre, reported 33 injuries, including at least one minor and three journalists associated with Prachatai, Khaosad, and Channel 8, along with 13 police personnel.
The indiscriminate firing of the rubber bullets was also accompanied with tear gas shelling and water canons. According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, 32 people were detained from the site of the protest, of which 16 were arrested and face charges. They were later released on bail by the Criminal Court in Bangkok on Monday, March 22.
The firing of rubber bullets is the second such incident of use of non-lethal force by the police since a similarly violent dispersal of protesters on February 28, when 16 were injured and 22 people, including two minors, were detained by the police.
REDEM, a protest coordination group launched by the Free Youth Movement, called for the demonstration as part of the ongoing upsurge against the military-supported government of prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, to demand constitutional limits on the powers and privileges enjoyed by the monarchy and also to release activists and protesters arrested and facing trial under lèse majesté laws that criminalize “insult to monarchy.”
Saturday’s protest comes just days after a constitutional amendment bill, proposing the creation of an elected body to effectively replace the 2017 constitution, failed to pass in a joint session of the parliament on March 17. While the lower house of the parliament is elected, the upper house (Senate) largely consists of members appointed by the military. Protesters have been demanding for the return of democracy as it existed before the 2014 coup overthrew the democratically-elected government in the middle of an election.