Slightly more than a year ago, on 22 July 2007, Bangkok saw a violent street protest when the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protested in front of the compound of General Prem Tinsulanonda, head of the Privy Council. Even today this event is cited as proof of the supposedly uncontrollable violence of Thaksin supporters. Most of the Thai media has reported this event as if enraged protesters attacked police and attempted to storm the compound of General Prem. Most international media were not present, and simply copied their articles from the Thai media. At the time international attention to Thai politics had almost completely vanished. Only Asia Sentinel‘s coverage showed a different, and for me far more realistic picture.
The UDD, holding Prem responsible for the military coup, had already once attempted to protest in front of his compound, but were blocked by police. At the next opportunity, however, their strategy was different. At lunchtime 15,000 to 20,000 protesters marched from Sanam Luang. A small group was already diverted on to a different route over Thewet. The main body of protesters reached the first police block on their way to Prem’s compound, but instead of the usual long negotiations they simply used their mass to press through the barricades. Police had to give way, and the protesters used the lorries from the blockade to push through the next police lines. There was minimal violence, mostly hotheads attacking drivers of those lorries, but fellow protesters quickly stopped this. At about 3 pm the protesters reached Prem’s house, sat down, and listened to speeches from a mobile stage. By that time I had already heard about an order given to police to disperse the protesters. I was also given the possible time. After a break at home I returned to Thewet just in time to see the first police assault against protesters which was successfully fought back. After police retreated, protesters themselves quieted their fellow protesters down, and stopped them from further attacking police.
One of these photos shows protesters standing in front of police, stopping other protesters from hurling stones.
Another photo shows protesters waiing police during the clashes.
After a lull the second police attack began, which was also fought back. Also a third attack started soon after, during which the police were beaten back into Prem’s compound. What was mostly reported as an attack on Prem’s compound, was actually an attempt by protesters to block police from leaving Prem’s compound by building a barricade at the entrance. There was also a small group of police that was left over near the Thewet corner. As these officers did not engage in any further active fighting, they were also left alone by the protesters.
Shortly after, the police staged a fourth attack, preceded by a barrage of tear gas grenades. At that time the protest leaders decided to retreat, and there was no more confrontation.
My guess is that at the time of the street battles there were maybe up to 5000 protesters left, and by the end maybe 2000 who walked back to Sanam Luang.
In the days after, I spoke with many police officers, of both high and low ranks, who took part in the clashes. I also spoke with plain clothes officers who were in the mass of protesters. All officers stated that the decision to attack the protesters came directly from the army. In the opinion of police, violent tactics should not have been used because the UDD protesters would have left anyhow during the night as they did not have sufficient people to continuously block Prem’s compound like the PAD did at Government House before the coup.
In conclusion, this protest, if analysed dispassionately, showed several positive developments. The police did not use lethal force, there were no deaths; there was nobody injured beyond mending. The worst injury was the broken leg of a police officer. The protest leaders mostly controlled the protesters very well, and also managed to stop the protest when it was in danger of descending into further levels of violence. In every modern democracy there are protests, and often violent protests — looking at the recent WTO protests, which are often far more violent. The importance issue is how these protests are dealt with by the government authorities — non-lethal force, or all out confrontation by shooting protesters, as has been done often in Thai history.
Here, police used tear gas, both grenades and pepper spray, batons and makeshift missiles such as bottles and stones (I was nearly hit by a bottle that came flying out of Prem’s compound, and the elderly protester in the photo that is helped up by two fellow protesters was hit by a missile that was thrown out of Prem’s compound), while protesters used whatever came handy – bottles, stones, pieces of wood and iron. In this sense, I would judge the events at Thewet as a clear step forward, even though I am equally of the opinion that violence could have been avoided if the army-installed government had used a softer approach.
Obviously in the aftermath both sides politicised this event tremendously. The very one-sided and partial reporting in the Thai medias stems most definitely from the fact that at the time every Thai news outlet still had military officers as censors in their offices. International media was mostly not present, the few who were there were on the ground only very briefly.