With the return of the pro-democracy protests comes the underlying question of the role of the protest guards. Amid the myriad issues, from the movement’s achievements to the risk of prosecution, the problem of the guards is never far from the top of the list.
Their actions are even thought to be putting some people off from coming to protests, causing the pro-democracy movement to lose momentum. Several recent protests have ended with some form of violence started by protest guards and vocational students according to human rights observers.
The core function of the protest guards is to keep the peace within the protests, make sure traffic flows and negotiate with the police. In the case of a police crackdown, they also are in the front lines fighting off tear gas and water cannons. At least this is their role as understood by the majority of protesters and the press.
The vocational students carry out similar roles, but their standing is coloured by their checkered history of street violence among rival institutions.
On February 1 We Volunteer (WeVo) guards were seen holding off riot police approaching to dispersing protestors in front of the Myanmar embassy. Protest guards used rocks, traffic cones, metal poles, fences, fire crackers, and smoke bombs to delay the police advance.
After the protesters managed to escape, the guards dispersed, but some straggling vocation students continued to hurl objects at the police.
But clashes at later protests on February 10 and February 13 raised more difficult questions about the function of the guards and vocational students, as that violence was more clearly initiated by the protest guards.
Especially after the protest was called off, was it necessary to continue throw fire crackers and ping pong bombs at the riot police?
And is it necessary for protest guards and vocational students to sometimes go right up to the police line to intimidate the riot police? It is understandable to express displeasure of their presence but is intimidation necessary?
Even members of the press are expressing concern about violence initiated by the protest guards and vocational students. When a group of them start rushing we fear that we will get caught in the confrontation.
But our duty is to bear witness and report events to the public. We are braced for possible clashes and carry protective equipment. But if even we are being put off the protests, what about the ordinary protesters that just want to come to the protest and express themselves?
This is not to say that protest guards and vocation students are no longer necessary at protests, where they doubtless continue to play an important role. But what can be done to make sure that they do not get out of line?
Maybe the solution lies in a degree of self-restraint or some chain of command within the guards and vocational students.
Protest leaders have now taken the issue of violence much more seriously and have urged protesters to maintain non-violence, with online announcements and flyers at the protest, as seen at the recent protest on Saturday, which ended without any altercations.
Even WeVo themselves have also joined in promoting the call for non-violence on their social media channels.
But will this be enough to gain the trust of fearful protesters and encourage them to return to the protests? Will it help restore the numbers to the peak turn-outs of October and November 2020?
Only future protests will tell.