Thailand: Police violence and harmful chemical irritants routinely unleashed on young protesters – exclusive research

Thai authorities have repeatedly deployed reckless and violent tactics to quell the country’s burgeoning youth protest movement including beating demonstrators, firing chemicals from water cannons and shooting rubber bullets at close range, new research from Amnesty International reveals today.

The report, My face burned as if on fire, provides exhaustive documentation and analysis of the past year of Thai protests, painting a detailed picture of the excessive and unlawful use of force against largely peaceful protesters. 

Reporting by Amnesty’s on-the-ground monitors is corroborated by interviews with dozens of victims and eyewitnesses. Amnesty’s International Crisis Evidence Lab has also verified 87 videos depicting police violence.

“Bystanders and protesters, most of them not engaged in any unlawful or violent behaviour, suffered traumatic violence at the hands of the police: people were beaten, hit by rubber bullets and tear gassed, all because they dared to gather peacefully and express themselves,” said Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director of Research.

“As protests grew in scale throughout the year, Thai authorities comprehensively failed to de-escalate a volatile situation, and put large numbers of people in danger, including children.”

Multiple testimonies in the report highlight the excessive use of chemical irritants on crowds, including in tear gas and water cannon discharge. Victims report suffering injuries such as severe burns and nasal bleeding.

Eyewitnesses and victims also describe many incidents of dangerous policing, from the aiming of high-pressure water cannons at people’s heads to the reckless firing of rubber bullets into the crowd.

“That was not arrest. That was battery” – Police beatings as part of crackdown

Tens of thousands of Thais took to the streets to demand democratic reforms throughout 2020 and into 2021 in Bangkok, the capital, and in provinces across Thailand. As the protest movement grew in 2020, so too did the severity of the Thai police’s response.

Riot police deployed water cannon on four occasions (16 October, 8 November, 17 November 2020 and 28 February 2021) to disperse protests which were largely peaceful, violating international human rights law and standards.

Eyewitnesses and verified video evidence show water jets discharged from a distance of 10m against protesters, safety marshals, journalists, and observers. The jets were sometimes aimed at the upper body and head. On other occasions, they were deployed indiscriminately at protesters pressed tightly together and unable to move or find cover.

Amnesty International further documented severe police beatings as well as the unlawful use of rubber bullets during the 28 February 2021 protest.

Victims and eyewitnesses said that police kicked protesters with combat boots and hit them with shields and batons. Police also struck protesters on the head, neck, back and abdomen, even after they had been apprehended and restrained.

A 16-year-old protester told Amnesty International: “They tied my hands behind my back with cable ties. After that, they kept kicking me and beating me up with batons. They used batons to beat me all over my body, my neck, my limbs, my head, my back…until a plainclothes officer came and said, ‘The order was to capture not beat up [protesters].’”

The protester added: “That was not an arrest. That was battery.”

Eyewitnesses and a victim also recounted how rubber bullets were fired by riot police even after protesters at the February demonstration started to retreat peacefully. Rubber bullets and casings were found at the protest site.

“I couldn’t breathe” – Unlawful use of chemical irritants and tear gas

At the protest on 17 November 2020, people reported experiencing coughing, skin and eye irritation and redness, chemical burns, breathing difficulties, burning sensations in the nose, lungs and skin, and nasal blood discharge after inhaling chemicals released from tear gas canisters or being hit by jets from water cannon.

“I felt like my face was burning and I couldn’t breathe,” said one 24-year-old observer after tear gas cannisters landed in front of her. “The gas mask didn’t help at all. I was knocked out. I [only] became conscious later at the hospital.”

At two locations near Bangkok’s Parliament House, riot police fired tear gas and water cannons laced with irritants at peaceful protesters from a distance of approximately ten metres. Chemical irritants were repeatedly used on the protesters for a period of five and a half hours.

Eighteen individuals interviewed by Amnesty International reported sustaining injuries or witnessed others who sustained injuries.

A protest guard who was volunteering to manage crowds and ensure demonstrators’ safety, described being targeted for several hours by water cannon and tear gas : “I felt fatigued. Drenched all over my body. Rankled, pained. I was so battered, I was numb with pain. We could not go on”.

Violent policing part of Thailand’s arsenal of repression

The youth-led popular movement followed six years of smaller peaceful assemblies to protest the aftermath of the May 2014 military coup, after which the coup-installed National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) imposed a range of restrictions on political activity.

These were partially lifted after the 2019 general elections, in which the political opposition’s participation was extensively curtailed while NCPO military officials assumed elected civilian office.

Since the military coup in 2014, the Thai authorities have persistently targeted and persecuted activists, human rights defenders, journalists, political opponents and many others expressing views critical of government action.

While protests have abated as Thailand battles a renewed increase in Covid-19 infections, the authorities have criminalised and detained peaceful protesters – including under emergency provisions to tackle Covid-19, and despite the country’s prisons having seen thousands of infections in recent weeks.

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, since July 2020, at least 679 individuals have faced criminal charges – including sedition, royal defamation, computer-related crime, violation of the Public Assembly – in 344 lawsuits for joining peaceful protests, 43 of them children. Eighteen individuals have also been charged with contempt of court. One activist received a four-month prison sentence in late March 2021.

Time for a new approach

Amnesty International is calling on the police to protect the rights of all peaceful protesters and facilitate their rights to peaceful protest and free expression. The organization further urges police to prioritize non-violent means, such as negotiation, mediation and dialogue, to de-escalate situations which might lead to violence.

Amnesty urges the Thai authorities to immediately drop all charges against human rights defenders and activists targeted for exercising their right to protest.

Problematic laws such as the Public Assembly Act and the Emergency Decree must be repealed and existing less restrictive measures which comply with international human rights law and standards must instead be implemented. Everyone has the right to peacefully join a protest and voice their opinions without facing charges.

“The Thai authorities are using violence and judicial harassment to quash nationwide discontent. These fear tactics are only helping to highlight many of the protesters’ grievances, further fuelling the protests,” said Emerlynne Gil.

“It is time for a new approach, one which recognises that Thailand’s protests are overwhelmingly peaceful and grounded in the human rights to free assembly and expression.

“Ultimately, this youth movement is a plea for dialogue. The authorities should not respond with batons, water cannon, chemicals and bogus lawsuits.”