Bangkok’s march for freedom

Thai protesters and activists came together on the historic 14th October to demand democracy and social justice

By | Thu 15 Oct 2020

Dirtbikes, cargo trucks and police vehicles filled the streets of Bangkok this Wednesday, 14th October. Thousands of pro-democracy protesters marched from Democracy Monument to the Government House to demand the resignation of Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. Protesters were faced with government forces and royalist supporters in an event that was filled with passion and fury.

The protest was planned and organised by student-led organisation Free People. The march was a peak to the nearly three months of protesting across Thailand. October 14th was chosen in memory of ‘Wan Maha Wippayok’ or the ‘Day of Great Sorrow’; an important uprising in Thai history that ended, if only temporarily, military dictatorship in Thailand.

In addition to demanding that Gen Prayut step down, Free Youth and their supporters call for a new constitution as well as reform to the monarchy. Thousands marched and demonstrated, breaking down barriers and setting up camps, settling in for the long wait for their demands to be met.

The rally began around noon. By 2pm, Democracy Monument looked unrecognisable. Gates surrounding the monument were laid flat on the grass as protestors claimed the monument in the name of the people. A six-doored golden turret upon which sat the symbolic representation of the 1932 Thai constitution at the centre of the monument was seized. Protestors lined up and took turns entering to get a look inside and take selfies, and soon it was gutted and filled with spray-paint graffiti and pro-democracy stickers.

It was an incongruous sight; as the monument was being taken by pro-democracy protesters, hundreds of royalists wearing yellow-shirts were offloaded from – of all things – garbage trucks, allegedly having been trucked in by the junta to form a counter-protest. The yellow-shirts have, for the past couple of decades, symbolically represented a strong backing of the Thai monarchy, though as with all colour-coded shirt wearers in Thailand, there are complexities and nuances to each hue and shade of shirt worn which changes under different governments and allegiances. While many yellow-shirts calmly watched the assembly of Free People gathering at the monument, some raised their middle fingers toward the protesters in contempt of the three-finger salute used by the protesters (a symbol of opposition to dictatorship, initially borrowed from the movie The Hunger Games, but now often being referred to as an echo of France’s national motto: Liberté, égalité, fraternité). Hundreds of police in riot gear, linked arm-in-arm, circled the monument separating the yellow-shirts from the protesters. People from both sides of the manmade wall threw insults at one another; the police were notably uneasy. One taxi driver said about the protesters, “Baby scouts, that’s what they are. The protesters hold three fingers in the air just like a three finger scout salute. They are all baby scouts. This protest won’t change anything.”

Protesters had their own opinion, “Oh my god, I think our country is frozen, this time we have to move forward,” one 25 year old protester said. “Gen Prayut is an idiot. He doesn’t know how to manage our government, economics and country. He doesn’t know how to drive the country to move forward.” The anonymous girl came with her friend and felt safe in numbers, “I feel safe because there’s so many people here. And, tonight at midnight many people get off work and will join the protest. There’s too many of us now. We are protesting all night.”

The sun beat down as the march of thousands began down Ratchadamnoen Road. Traffic was diverted away from the parade and people hung out of windows and stranded cars filming and photographing the event with their mobile phones. There was a sense that history was in the making. As sweat poured, medics and first-aid volunteers passed out water and cotton swabs containing menthol to keep to crowd hydrated and cool.

Shop owners, motorbike delivery men and monks joined the procession. One 93 year old protester wearing a red shirt (previously a symbol of the pro-Thaksin supporters) who was sitting in the back of a pickup truck said, “I took the train from Chiang Mai by myself. It is time for change. I had to be here for this march.”

The march was led by Free People members. A cargo truck containing key figures crept down the road surrounded by supporters. Anon Nampa, a Thai human rights activist previously interviewed, and other members gave speeches, sang songs and kept motivations high throughout the day. The cargo trucks’ loudspeaker echoed through the dense Bangkok streets and sois as protesters cheered the Free People members on.

As the march crept down Nakhon Sawan Road, protesters remained focused on the goal; the Government House of Thailand. Smiles, laughter and three-finger salutes were the motif of the day. The concentrated and lighthearted protesters advanced over Thewakam Rangrak Bridge and strode confidently in the direction of the Government House. However, at the intersection of Nakhon Sawan Road and Phitsanulok Road, the demonstration came to a halt. Massive vans, police officers, metal fencing and yellow-shirt supporters dammed the avenue. The junction was clogged by two barriers; the first being a line of around 100 red beret police officers, metal fencing and three enormous parked vans. The second barrier a few metres behind the first was of officers as well as a few hundred people wearing yellow shirts. The small zone in between the barriers was crowded with media and neutral onlookers.

As the thousands of protesters began funnelling toward the blockade, one older protester laughed, “There’s too many of us. The wall will break! For sure it will.” People jammed in as far down the street as could be seen. Protest signs, flowers and three-finger salutes hovered above the chanting heads. For two hours protesters demonstrated in front of the police. Anon Nampa and company yelled through the loudspeaker in encouragement. The crowd chanted, bowed and made small performances for the officers as they looked on arm-in-arm.

Just before 6pm, the dam broke. Protesters pushed against one another and the right side of the first blockade weakened. The limited amount of police tried to press against the surge but the pressure of the masses ultimately overran the officers. The outnumbered police remained diligent in trying to keep the roaring crowd back but the crowds’ power overwhelmed. Once the left side broke, the rest of the blockade fell apart as police officers and protesters mixed and mingled. Like a water spigot being turned on, the protesters flooded the junction. The crowds screamed and yelled at the excitement. The small

area between the two blockades filled almost immediately. The second blockade broke moments later because of the pressure. The yellow-shirted crowd and the second line of officers fell apart quickly as Phitsanulok Road filled.

The energy of the crowd was thrumming. The relief of the broken blockade rejuvenated the sweaty protesters. As the caravan took a left onto Phitsanulok Road, night descended. Anon Nampa’s cargo truck’s headlights were turned on and speeches and chanting continued, amplified by the loudspeakers. An ocean of cell phone lights illuminated the streets in song. Less than a kilometre away from the Government House, smaller blockades of pedestrian vehicles and police units fell apart at the energised crowd.

At around 7pm, the march reached its destination, Suan Misakawan Junction.

The truck containing the Free Youth members parked directly at the intersection of Phitsanulok Road and Ratchadamnoen Nok Road. The rest of the protesters circled the truck and made camp just as darkness fell. Leaders took turns using the trucks’ loudspeaker to direct messages toward the government building. The blasting speeches were filled with cries and demands for Gen Prayut to step down. Protesters declared not to leave until a change was made.

Throughout the evening, the camps’ speeches toward the Thai government continued.

At around 4am Thursday, the police announced Bangkok to be in a State of Emergency. The degree would ban gatherings of more than five people. The decree also gives the police and military the power to ban people from “entering any area.” It wasn’t long before police arrested several of the activists, including Anon Nampha. Hundreds of police personnel and military units gathered at the intersection to remove protestors from the area.

While the future of the arrested young activists is unknown, one thing is certain, Thailand’s youth movement is being heard. Or, as one protester put it, “More is going to come for Thailand. If no one speaks their mind, nothing will change. The one thing we got now is social media. We used to just have newspapers and TV, but now, we can all be a writer or journalist. They cannot stop us.”

For more information and updates: