BANGKOK — In the air heavy with monsoon pressure and discontent, riot police in Bangkok released rubber bullets and tear gas. Tanat Thanakitamnuay, the scion of a real estate family, stood on a truck where he had berated Thailand’s leaders for their botched response to the pandemic.
Then a hard object, perhaps a tear gas canister, hit his right eye and tore his retina. Tanat, who once supported the 2014 coup that brought Prayuth Chan-ocha, now the prime minister, to power, says the August 13 injury cost him his eyesight.
“I may be blinded, but now I’m stronger than ever, I see things more clearly than ever,” he said. “People knew long ago how incompetent this government is. Covid is just more evidence and evidence.”
Thailand, seen not long ago as a virus-carrying miracle, has become yet another example of how authoritarian hubris and lack of government accountability have fueled the pandemic. More than 12,000 people have died from Covid-19 in Thailand this year, compared to fewer than 100 last year. The economy has been ravaged, with tourism almost non-existent and production slowing.
The anger is spreading, and not just on the street. Opposition lawmakers in parliament tried to pass a vote of no confidence in Mr Prayuth, accusing his government of wasting Thailand’s months-long lead to fight the coronavirus. That attempt failed on Saturday, although some members of the prime minister’s coalition had briefly sparked speculation that they would support his ouster.
The vaccine rollout this summer, which was already late, was further hampered by production delays. A company with no experience in making vaccines, whose main shareholder is the king of Thailand, was commissioned to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine domestically. The government’s failure to provide adequate imported supplies has made matters worse. Only about 15 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, and social inequalities make the young rich prey on the older, poorer people.
The anti-government protests, which now take place on a daily basis, are becoming more desperate and the actions of the security forces more aggressive. In August, at least 10 demonstrations were violently broken up. At one o’clock, a 15-year-old boy was shot and is now in intensive care. Police deny that live ammunition was fired.
“In the past, people used to say they didn’t come out to protest because of Covid, but now the thinking has changed to, ‘You stay at home and you die anyway because of the government’s inability to take care of people,’” Tosaporn Sererak said. a doctor who was once a government spokesman, who was ousted by the 2014 coup.
More than a dozen civil society organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, issued a letter on Wednesday urging authorities to exercise restraint.
“We are alarmed by the riot police’s disproportionate response to provocations by protesters,” said the letter to Mr Prayuth. “We are also concerned about the arbitrary detention of protest leaders who have recently faced new criminal charges and been denied bail.”
Mr Prayuth, who led the coup as army chief seven years ago, has concentrated power into his own hands, arguing that more executive powers are needed to fight the pandemic.
He has tried to crush public opinion by imposing a state of emergency and criminalizing certain criticisms. Hundreds have been arrested in recent months for sedition, for alleged computer crime and for criticizing King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, which is against the law.
A prominent politician was accused of insulting the monarch after asking why Siam Bioscience, the king’s company, had been contracted to produce vaccines for Southeast Asia when it had not previously manufactured them.
At least a dozen leaders of protests that began last year calling for Mr Prayuth’s resignation and monarchy reforms are now incarcerated pending trial. Some have contracted Covid-19 in prison. On Tuesday, a United Nations official expressed concern that detained protesters were not receiving adequate medical care.
Sureerat Chiwarak, the mother of Parit Chiwarak, a protest leader, said her son had become infected in a crowded prison in Bangkok. Mr Parit told his mother that there were many more Covid cases in prison than the official figures indicated.
“Some people say, ‘Why don’t you surrender? They’ve got your child in their hands, they’re putting him in jail,” said Mrs. Sureerat. “No. The children are fighting for equality, why do I have to surrender?”
With some of the Covid lockdown measures lifted in Bangkok on Wednesday, the protest movement is gaining momentum, even as crowds have failed to match the tens of thousands who showed up for demonstrations last year.
“If the government is authoritarian, they think they can censor the media, they think they can stop the people from protesting,” said Rangsiman Rome, an opposition lawmaker. “But people still come every day to protest and demand change.”
During last year’s protests, which were peaceful, riot police showed largely reticence, despite their long history of shooting protesters.
Their response this summer has been harsher, with protests often being quashed before they could coalesce. Police now regularly deploy rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons with burning chemicals. Protesters respond with their own arsenals, including flamethrowers and catapults.
Opposition figures say the urge to confront the police during a pandemic is a sign of widespread desperation.
“People who supported the government have also become infected, and this makes them think and wonder why they have to suffer so much,” Mr Rangsiman said.
On August 29, two anti-government protests converged in Bangkok. The first was a gathering of hundreds of cars and motorcycles. After a period of intense honking, they dispersed.
The second rally, smaller and angrier, formed in a business district. Motorcyclists used paper to cover their license plates and helmets to hide their faces. Other protesters hid behind balaclavas. No one wanted to talk openly about why they were there.
Tear gas began to flow before dusk and police fired streams of purple water, presumably to mark the protesters. Low booms echoed and smoke filled the air as protesters threw projectiles. When night fell, small fires burned. On Saturday, riot police set up shipping containers to hinder a demonstration, while a smaller protest erupted into violence.
Tanat, the protester who went partially blind last month, is taking advantage of the privilege that has split Thailand into a small group of haves and tens of millions of have-nots, a divide that has fueled political unrest for years. He said some of his wealthy friends had also started attending rallies, jumping on their drivers’ motorcycles to get there instead of being driven in their usual Rolls-Royces or Maybachs.
But most of the protesters come from the struggling class further impoverished by the pandemic. Nipapon Somnoi said her son, Warit Somnoi, 15, had offered to drop out of school to help the family, but she refused.
The boy ended up at a protest in mid-August. Video footage, which she can’t watch, shows the moment a bullet struck his neck and, as a CT scan confirmed, lodged in his spine. The police reiterated that the security forces did not use live ammunition. Mrs. Nipapon said she didn’t know what to believe.
Her son has been in a coma for more than two weeks. She worries that because her family is not rich or famous, his fate will be forgotten.
“Sometimes I think with one tear gas bottle you can buy six to eight doses of a good quality vaccine,” said Ms Nipapon. “The state keeps saying we are a democracy, but they only listen to their own voice.”
At the end of last month, she was in the hospital, caressing her son’s face and asking if he could hear her.
“There were times when I called his name and saw his eyelids move,” she said. “Tears came out. But I do not know.”