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The increasing wave of pro-democracy protests has been met with increasing use of force by the police in order to block marches and prevent demands being expressed in public. The police crowd control guidelines are being questioned as clashes attract public attention.

A protester confronting the crowd control police with a slingshot. (File photo)

The protests for political and monarchy reform, which started in 2020, have reached the point where the police disperse protests even before they begin. Protesters also find themselves blocked by containers and an increasing use of tear gas and rubber bullets that have also affected passers-by and nearby residents.

Amid the escalation of confrontation, Pol Lt Col Songsak Thititharawat, a police trainer and former Deputy Superintendent (General Staff Division) of the Phayao Provincial Police said the situation is worrying and the police on the ground are not doing it right.

Textbook methods in the use of force

Songsak says that the police have a series of levels in the use of force, from the minimum level of making an appearance in uniform, to the maximum of using weapons. In terms of crowd control, the Public Assembly Act requires officers overseeing public gatherings to be trained to understand and tolerate the situation and properly equipped with tools as provided by the relevant laws.

Left: Songsak Thititharawat. (Source: Youtube/Prachatai)

However, crowd control police are not allowed lethal weapons like pistols. They are instead equipped with less-than-lethal weapons like batons, tear gas and rubber bullets, which must be used proportionate to necessity when protesters are likely to harm the police. The main reason for the use of force is to create a distance between police and protesters.

Skipping the guidelines

“The first step is already not right; there are no negotiations,” said Songsak when asked if the recent crowd control measures met the standards. 

According to Songsak, the minimum measure and the best way to handle the crowd is to negotiate. However, governments with an authoritarian origin tend to reject negotiations. The provisions on crowd control in the Emergency Decree, which overrides the Public Assembly Act, exclude any negotiation process.

When there are no negotiations, this allows the conditions for confrontation

File photo

“When people take to the streets, they meet confrontation lines. Naturally there will be a contest for space. The protesters will move, the crowd control officers will block them. That will then cause pressure. There will be provocation back and forth,”

“[Crowd control], if it really follows the law, is to completely eliminate the demands. Either comply with the demands, or if you can’t comply with the demands, there may be some time factor. Then there must be a conversation on how to solve the problem. But lately there have been no negotiations. When there are no negotiations, each party will try to achieve their own goals.

“If neither party can achieve their goals, there will be conflict. Then they will use force against one another. The problem following a clash is that what is inevitable is a third hand. I always say that whether it comes from the protesters or the police, it can always appear. No matter what the objective, it will make a peaceful assembly not peaceful,” said Songsak.

Generally, Songsak’s reference to a ‘third hand’ may mean hardcore protesters who use weapons or explosives to make the protest look violent, or the authorities who want to legitimize their reason for a crackdown by themselves escalating the use of force.

Excessive violence on both sides

There is an increasing quantity of pictures and footage in the media and cyberspace of police stamping on protesters and shooting point-blank at protesters with rubber bullets. Songsak said this comes from the different attitudes toward democracy of the police and the protesters.

“Some people have different sets of ideas that they have been taught. When they are on the ground, with the situation and pressures, and with mindsets that are not the same, the emotions will be different. Some see protesters as enemies. Some see protesters as relatives. Some see protesters as friends.

“Some officers give things to the people, people sometimes give things to the officers as well. The emotions are different.

“The situation will get more violent. If the protesters are assaulted by the police, the degree will increase the next time. Protesters will bring along protective equipment or something to take revenge. The police will then say ‘last time there were officers injured’, so next time we will cut out the soft steps. We will start with the hard steps from the beginning.”

The need for more organization from protesters, less fervour from policemen

After the fierce police tactics at the 7 August protest, Songsak posted on his personal Facebook page a warning to the police at the scene after he saw a great number of rubber bullets fired. After gaining over 170,000 likes, he posted that the police on the ground asked him to ‘soften the tone’.

He decided himself to delete the post.

“I wrote to warn the crowd control officers that whatever the commander orders, when you are on the ground, you can be flexible about using force in the situation. If the commander orders us to shoot, we do not need to shoot. If they give us 10 bullets, it is possible for us not to shoot a single round.

“We can be flexible in using force by following the steps we have practiced. For example, talk first, speak to the protesters first or negotiate to have them step back. Like in the year there was a crackdown on the red shirts (2010), the first day of shooting at Khok Wua intersection, I was at the protest site. I went to negotiate with the soldiers to have each side retreat 50 metres in order to create enough space so things couldn’t be thrown to stop any third hand from interfering.” 

The deputy superintendent urged protesters to have well-organized protest guards who can withstand pressure in order to weather the escalation of violence and urged the police to decide on actions based on the law and good will toward the protesters.

“Those selected as crowd control police are mostly under 40 years of age. Actually according to the standards they must be under 35. Therefore, your time in government service still has many years to run. You will be at an age for government service for at least 20-25 more years. Don’t forget that those who have power come and vanish.

“Whoever comes into power and creates a set of ideas to control you, I ask you to respect the law on principle, compassion on principle. See the people as your children, as your family.

“Because if you commit an act of violence, no matter if you act violently from emotion, or maybe from pressure or a special order, the consequence of your action, if ever it happens to be against the law, there is a chance that you will be sued. By that time, no one can help you. Your commander can’t help you. I have seen many of my friends sent to jail, and leave government service before retirement. I don’t want you juniors to suffer that. So I wrote that the people will surely get their turn,” said Songsak

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