At almost every pro-democracy protest to date, it is noticeable to see individuals dressing in black or brown helmets and military-style vests, with green armbands written “We Vol, short for We Volunteer.
Aged between 18 to 40, these individuals are what you would call “guards’, whose main mission is to provide safety and security for the pro-democracy protests.
In the beginning, their function was not to be guards at the protests but as technical staff to help with electrical and sound systems, as well as help with the flow of traffic.
“But as we see the increased activity of third-parties or the yellow shirt counter protesters, we needed to have some form of security so We Volunteer was created”, said Piyarat “Toto” Chongthep, the leader of We Volunteer.
We Volunteer, whose membership is at around 500 people, are trained to keep security while trying to adhere to the protest principles of non-violence and de-escalation.
One of the first protests where We Volunteer was present was September 19 at Thammasat University and Sanam Luang, and on the morning of September 20 where the protesters marched to the Office of the Privy Council, these guards formed human chains to create a buffer between the protesters and the police line.
This was done so that the more volatile protesters would not cause any confrontation with the police.
It was not until the protest on October 14 at Democracy Monument where the volunteers fought a losing battle to separate yellow shirts and student-protesters.
The guards could be seen getting in between the red shirts and the yellows to prevent and stop any clashes that were taking place. This resulted in one of the We Volunteers guards getting injured.
“Our job is not only to prevent confrontation but also to negotiate with the authorities as well. And in the case that if there is a crackdown on the protests, we try to prevent the protesters from reaching the police line as well as find safe zones for protesters”, said Piyarat.
Piyarat tells the Thai Enquirer that their job has become harder when the protests shifted from ones with protest leaders, to leaderless protests citing communication difficulties with protesters.
“When protests in the past have clear speakers, leaders, and organizers, it makes our jobs in communicating with the protesters much easier because the speaker can immediately announce it,” he said.
“But in the recent protests where it is becoming more leaderless, the main issue is communication, not just among ourselves with our radios but also communicating and controlling the protesters when marching is almost impossible.”
“Because of the nature of leaderless protests, anyone who has a portable speaker or Facebook can now be a leader, and our challenge now is how do we communicate with them?”
This is also the case with press as well due to recent complaints from the press that there has been shoving and pushing by guards.
“I truly understand all parties involved, where the press wants to report and document history, while the protesters want to see what is going on in front, while we guards also have our mission to maintain security because sometimes if the press gets too close there is a chance that someone will use that opportunity to attack the speaker,” said Piyarat.
“We want to create a press zone as we have done in the past, but with the protests becoming leaderless, it has become harder for us to allocate areas for the press”.
“I tell the guards to be patient.”
However, with the protests evolving constantly, other groups have stepped into help the volunteers such as the vocational students – a group not known for their patience or restraint.
“I have a positive feeling towards the other guard groups that are joining the protests because some of them might have seen the crackdown on the protesters and they want to help, and I thank them for coming to help us,” Piyarat said.
But Piyarat worries that if the protests continue to evolve organically and more groups continue to join the movement, more communication issues will arise.
While violence has been sporadic so far, the threat is always there and it only takes one undisciplined group to cause problems for the entire movement.