It was almost midnight when Dom, 21, found himself sprinting away from a group of armed police. The officers were menacing, he recalls, dressed head to toe in black body armor carrying nonlethal firearms coming in his direction. The sound of their boots echoed through the narrow halls of Din Daeng’s slum community as he sprinted away in the dark. His small frame was occasionally illuminated by flickering white lights above as he searched for a place to hide.
“They’re not far, keep searching,” the police’s voices echoed behind him as they moved through the high rise slums in the dead of night. They were searching for a group of young men, Dom’s team of chaos makers, who had minutes ago just targeted a group of police with firecrackers and ping pong bombs. The police were fierce in return, flashing their laser pointed weapons at anyone who would look at them.
But Dom was stealthy. He moved effortlessly through the cluttered apartment block and found his way to a friend’s room where they hid out for the night.
“We don’t always get away. Some people don’t make it out,” the protester told me from a curb not far from Din Daeng intersection.
There were no significant injuries that evening. But only a few nights later, a police officer would be shot in the head with a live round.
“It’s dangerous now, “ Dom said. “But how else are they [the government] going to hear us?”
For almost two months straight, young Thai protesters have been clashing with police as soon as the sun falls. The violence has mounted to the point of near deaths as hospitalizations occur almost every evening.
The young demonstrators have set fires to glittering massive portraits of the Thai King scattered throughout the city, targeted police bunkers, and fired large fireworks into the dark. In response, police have implemented a zero tolerance policy for unrest, unleashing rubber bullets, water cannons, and tear gas, detaining hundreds since September.
The economic fallout from Covid is at the heart of the anger.
The clashes are routinely taking place at Din Daeng intersection, a low income neighborhood where government housing buildings are drawn out for kilometers. The resentment stems from the government’s alleged mishandling of the pandemic. They see the government, run by military general turned Prime Minister Prayut Chan-Ocha, as negligent and careless. The sense of frustration is deeply felt in the protesters’ communities where their family members are getting sick with Covid. But without jobs, people are struggling to support their families in hospitals.
Earlier this year, a new and aggressive anti-government protest group Thalufah, attempted to push their way into the Thai prime minister’s residence at the 1st Infantry Regiment barracks, a military compound with troops controlled by the King himself. The vast majority of protesters promote peace and nonviolence. But with a recent spate of unsuccessful protests, one group of demonstrators who call themselves “Thalugaz”, are doing whatever it takes for the government to hear them.
“Many of us do not have good options,” Dom, a member of the protest group, told Thai Enquier. “We must force them to pay attention, we must get them to help the Thai people, this is one way to do this,” he said.
But images and video online also show police brutalizing protesters with their batons, kicking them, and punching them in their faces when they get close. One video shows a group of police knocking multiple young men off their moving scooters causing the men to crash. Last week, a group of women were shot at point blank range with rubber bullets for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But despite the increasing arrests and police brutality, this new group of young men are still raging on.
Nowhere to turn
Although the violence has subsided in recent weeks, many young men facing extreme economic difficulty say they have nowhere else to turn. It’s ultimately all about raising the pressure to help their communities.
“Right now I feel like the kids are not afraid,” says another young protester who goes by the nickname, *Chon. The young mechanic in his early twenties spoke to me from a small noodle stall not far from Din Daeng intersection. He’s been protesting intermittently with violence for a few months. But today, he says many of the teenagers are in danger. He feels a sense of responsibility to come out and protect them.
“My parents support my decision to protest too. They say if this is important to me, then I must continue. Whether I die, there will be no regrets. Because if I die, I am not just fighting for my individual future, I’m fighting for everyone who’s lost their job or is hurting, we are fighting for all of them, all of their future,” Chon told me.
“Myself, I am not scared. I’m used to this already. Coming to fight like this, I’ve done it for many months now. And everyday, you encounter bombs, bullets, rubber bullets, tear gas, getting hosed down by powerful sprays, that’s why I am not afraid anymore.”
For the young protesters to stop their guerilla warfare-like tactics, he says the government must show some respect. That would start with talks to look for a path forward. But he feels they have been neglected for far too long.
“They are pointing guns towards the citizens,” Chon says. “This is how far this government is willing to take it. If the government really wants to solve this problem, why don’t they set up a table and have a sit down with us and talk it out. That way we can avoid a violent response. Avoiding the young like us, the citizens, is what led to this situation. There has to be much more loss if we don’t have a sit down together to talk things through. Whether it’s accidents, destroying cars, run us over with cars, or shooting live ammo or rubber bullets. There will be much more.”
As we were getting the bill, the waitress approached our table and thanked him for his commitment to the cause. “Thank you for fighting for us,” the woman said. “Stay safe and good luck tonight.”
In the eyes of some local residents, these young men are white knights taking on an unfathomably powerful enemy.
A shaken community
But not all members ofDin Daeng’s community feel the same sense of gratitude. Much of the district has become increasingly agitated by the scenes of violence, the sounds of explosions, and their sons put behind bars.
Locals in the area told me that they are getting closer to a breaking point.
“I honestly can’t sleep,” says a local taxi driver in his 50s who lives in Din Daeng. “You think these explosions are bad now? Wait a couple more hours after curfew. That’s when they get really bad. I sit and drive my cab with a live feed on my phone from reporters so I know where the problems are happening. This way I can avoid the areas that these kids are using to cause problems” he said.
When exploring Din Daeng district near or after curfew, there is a palpable sense of danger that permeates the zone.
Ben Nattasit, a volunteer paramedic, told me while waiting for the next emergency call that he’s never seen anything like this.
“Tonight’s been fairly calm, other than a few explosions here and there by the overpass bridge, but not long ago the kids were coming here until the streets were full,” he says. “Now it’s not so severe but every night something still happens and people are still getting hurt.”
He added that today, most of the calls were directly related to the violence coming out of Din Daeng. His team dispatches medical assistance from two points across the district and the teams are busy.
Chon and I walked to his car where he was gearing up for the night. He pulled out from his trunk a pack of flavored cigarettes, a pen knife, and a bulletproof vest. He told me that if the government still refuses to grant them what they want, it’s likely the violence will go on.
He feels frustrated. Because although many young men like him and Dom are using destruction as a tool to finally be heard, it seems the government still isn’t listening.
“Some of us are going until death, fighting until death, we won’t disappear” Chon told me. “It’s going to be a drop of honey, but then you’ll see the citizens will rise up,” he said. “If one dies, a million more will come. If ten people get caught another 100,000 will be added. It’s going to remain like this. There won’t be an end as long as they continue to ignore us.”
*Dom’s name has been changed to protect his identity for security reasons.
*Other subjects preferred to use nicknames to protect their identities.