Payu Boonsophon stands with a patch taped over his right eye.

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

Payu Boonsophon, a 29-year-old environmental activist, was raised by his grandfather, a retired police officer and his grandmother in Chaiyaphum, Thailand. With a passion for people power, Payu believes protests are pivotal to ensuring change is possible.

However, two years ago, while attending a protest for environmental justice and human rights outside the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Bangkok, Payu was shot in his right eye by a police officer who was firing rubber bullets at the crowd. One of the rubber bullets penetrated Payu’s eyeball, blinding him.

Here, Payu shares how he’s rebuilt his life and why it won’t stop him from protesting.

In 2022, I attended the Ratsadon Stop APEC 2022 protest (meaning people against APEC). APEC had approved the military-dominated government’s green-washing Bio-Circular-Green Economy (BCG) Policy. It meant the war on Thailand’s natural resources would intensify and we wanted to show them the human faces of those who would suffer from this policy.

Little did I know my life was about to change forever. The protest was nothing out of the ordinary. We usually face obstructions by authorities, however, as I work for an NGO, my team and I always assess risks and coordinate with police to make it as safe as possible.

On this occasion, my focus was on security and safety and whether we would be able to reach the venue of the APEC conference. We had no intention of using violence. We were there with other protesters, unarmed. The only weapons we had were our banners and sound system.

I remember seeing riot police officers blocking our advances, but there was a Plan B.  If they didn’t let us proceed, we would negotiate with authorities to let us pass, explaining we were here to advocate on issues. We didn’t want to cause any harm.

Threats and violence

The police were arguing with people on the frontlines, including me. I was wearing a helmet, when an officer said, “Hey you, the one wearing the helmet. You will get a lesson, definitely. Prepare yourself.” But we were determined to continue with our activities.

Suddenly, police started using batons on the protesters. I don’t know if it was a mistake or caused by anger, but a police officer shot a rubber bullet on the ground, to stop people protesting. It bounced off the ground and hit a protester. Something was off. This wasn’t normal practice.

We weren’t allowed to pass, so we waited before we continued with our activities. After lunch, we started our cursing ritual [which involved burning dried chilli peppers and salt a stove].

When we finished, we put a charcoal grill used in our ritual on a police car. The fire had been extinguished, yet the police used water cannon anyway.

The protesters were upset, and that’s when the police started using batons and rubber bullets. Some police tried to prevent the clashes, but no one listened to them; the crowd control police commanders failed to control the situation.

They shot rubber bullets at a car, and I was worried the glass would break – especially as there were protesters in the back of the vehicle. I went to help them, and when I turned back, a rubber bullet hit me in the eye.

I went to help my fellow protesters, but when I turned back, a rubber bullet hit me in the eye.

Payu Boonsophon

A devastating injury

At first, I didn’t know what had happened. It was a hot day, but all I could feel was cold blood on my neck. I could hear a buzzing noise and when I went to check, I noticed a lot of blood coming out of my eye. An officer approached me and told me to go to an ambulance.

I realised the injury was serious, but inside I felt fine. I was ready to rejoin the protest.

I worried fleetingly about whether I would see after this, but as with every protest we had conducted a risk assessment, so I was mentally prepared. I didn’t panic.

On the way to hospital, I remember worrying most of all about my family, but then I had to get treatment and I didn’t have any time to think any further. 

My grandparents have always been concerned about my activism. As a student, I joined a group to organize activities to support communities affected by coal mines, but they weren’t violent. When my grandparents heard I had been hit in the eye by a rubber bullet, they told me they feared I would die. They said they would donate their eyes to me. They feared my disability would prevent me from working and I would not be accepted in society.

However, after I was discharged, I came home and in time, I was able to show them I could live normally and that it hasn’t affected me. During my recovery, they were supportive. They didn’t ask me to stop. They just asked me to take a break and not stop.

Rebuilding my life

Since I lost sight in my right eye, I have had to adapt because everything has a different perspective now. While I was recovering, I would miss things I wanted to pick up. I had to proactively learn to use my body again and rebuild confidence. When I had difficulty grasping things, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to drive. I love driving. I’ve always wanted to race cars or own a garage, but when I was shot by the rubber bullet, I thought I was losing my dream. Now I can ride a motorbike and drive a car. It’s still possible to do the things I love and that brings me joy. I would say I am 90 % normal, and it has relieved any worries my family had.

Payu stands on street in Thailand, with a cream brick building in the background and green palm trees
Payu Boonsophon, 29, stands on the street where a police officer shot him in the eye with a rubber bullet.

I truly believe that protest is the only tool people can use to make the state listen to them. People have been oppressed, natural resources snatched. They have no power, no voice. We have used other channels made available by government to report problems, but they’ve never taken action. Protest is necessary and essential.

Protest is necessary and essential.

Payu Boonsophon

As a country, we still have a long way to go. Under the current situation, it’s not looking good for peaceful protesters [in Thailand] because they are being prosecuted. We need a new constitution to give more power to people and local government needs to be given the power to solve things on their own.

As for myself, I am trying to live normally and pursue my dreams. I still work for the E-san Land Reform Network (Kor Por Aor), which advocates for the fundamental rights of landless farmers who are made even more vulnerable by land-grabbing perpetrated by the state. I am grateful for the support other organizations, such as Amnesty International, have shown me. I have received so many letters of support.  

Going forward, I want to see positive changes in society and I do think we are one step closer to having democracy. As long as people love and understand each other I believe the world will be a better place.

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

*This story was originally published on Al Jazeera

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