BANGKOK: Thai police used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets on Sunday as they tried to stop protesters from marching on Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s office and called on him to resign.
More than 1,000 protesters took part in the demonstration, which the police had not been able to disperse till now.
Several protesters carried fake body-bags to represent coronavirus deaths, as they blame the prime minister and his government for mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The government has been poor at managing the situation and if we don’t do anything there will be no change,” Kanyaporn Virat, 34, one of the protesters, told Reuters.
The use of force by police came as some protesters tried to break barbed wire and metal barricades set up by officials to block roads from the Democracy Memorial to Government House, where the prime minister works.
“Killer Sarkar!”, Panusaya “Rung” Sithijiravantankul, a protest leader, tweeted after the use of force.
The protest marked a year after the first of a wave of massive street protests led by youth groups that drew hundreds of thousands across the country.
Those protests came to a halt after authorities cracked down on rallies and detained protesting leaders and new waves of COVID-19 infections.
Most of the detained protest leaders have been released on bail and some took part in anti-government protests last month.
To curb the coronavirus spread, the government on Friday imposed a new nationwide ban on public gatherings of more than five people, with a maximum sentence of two years in prison or a fine of up to 40,000 baht ($1,220). ), or both.
Thailand on Sunday reported 11,397 infections and 101 deaths, bringing a cumulative total of 403,386 cases and 3,341 deaths, the vast majority from an outbreak since early April that is being fueled by highly transmissible alpha and delta COVID-19 variants.
Police urged people not to attend Sunday’s protest, saying doing so risked the spread of the coronavirus, and warned that those violating the law and creating unrest would face charges.
“There is an increasing number of newly infected cases on a daily basis,” said deputy police spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen. “Public concerns, public health concerns will increase by attending such a rally and the current situation will worsen,” he said.
Street protests against the prime minister have been held in recent weeks by several groups, including Prayuth’s former political allies, as frustration mounts over rising infections and the damage the pandemic has caused to the economy.
Last year’s protests also broke traditional taboos by openly criticizing the king, a crime under the country’s strict Les Majeste law that punishes up to 15 years for insulting or defaming the king, queen, heiress and regent gives a prison sentence.