As night falls on a bustling junction close to the heart of Bangkok, gangs of young protesters take on police with slingshots, firecrackers and homemade “ping pong” bombs, turning the streets into a battle zone.
The student protest movement that gripped Thailand last year with its taboo-smashing demands for royal reform has largely died down, splintered by infighting and left rudderless by the arrest of several key leaders.
They organise through messaging apps and have taught themselves how to make small explosive charges or “ping pong bombs” using manuals found online.
Thalugaz, literally “breaking through (tear) gas” in Thai, is a loosely organised group of working-class youth in their teens and early 20s with no formal structure or strategy.
The police’s handling of those largely peaceful rallies was criticised by some as heavy-handed, though they insist it was in line with the law and international standards.
“My friends and brothers got beaten to a pulp by who? The riot police,” 18-year-old Thom told AFP.
– Splintering –
They grabbed headlines with their demands for curbs on the power and wealth of King Maha Vajiralongkorn — unprecedented in a country where the monarchy, long revered, is protected by stringent lese majeste laws.
Where last year’s protests focused on calls for constitutional change and high-level political reform, the Thalugaz youth are focused on economic and social demands.
Many of the young protesters come from working-class families whose lives have been upended by the coronavirus, with street traders and small businesses forced to stop work in recent months because of strict lockdown measures.
He too was hit by the pandemic, when he had to shutter his auto repair shop in his native northeastern Surin province. Now he makes a living delivering ice around the capital.
The virus has claimed more than 18,000 lives in Thailand and while the peak of the third wave has now passed, daily infection rates are still hovering around 10,000.
– ‘Payback’ –
“The riot police are aggressive so the kids retaliate,” restaurant owner Sirirattana Siriwattanavuth, 32, told AFP.
But Manoon Houngkasem, a 67-year-old food vendor who has lived in Din Daeng for more than 40 years, said most residents are unhappy with the noise and violence.
With no sign of Prayut quitting and Thalugaz youths determined not to back down, residents of Din Daeng are facing more sleepless nights.
Originally published as Thailand protests fade but the hardcore battle on