Thai police have fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators in Bangkok protesting against the government’s failure to handle the Covid-19 surge and its effect on the economy.
More than 1,000 protesters defied restrictions on public gatherings on Saturday and marched towards Government House, the office of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, demanding his resignation.
The protesters were heavily outnumbered by police, who had said on Friday they planned to deploy nearly 6,000 officers to tackle the rally.
Police sealed off a road near Victory Monument using containers and shot tear gas and rubber bullets to push protesters back.
“We are holding this line,” police announced over loudspeakers, as officers were seen in riot gear and shields massing just metres away from where demonstrators had gathered.
Street protests against the government have been held in recent weeks by several groups, including Prayuth’s former political allies, as frustrations mount over its management of coronavirus outbreaks and the damage pandemic measures continue to inflict on the economy and people’s livelihoods.
“I’m worried about the situation but we will have to continue fighting despite the severe Covid-19 outbreak,” 27-year-old protester Nat, who only gave one name, said.
Franc Han Shih, a journalist based in Bangkok, told Al Jazeera that Saturday’s protest was partly triggered by the Thai government’s sluggish rollout of its Covid vaccination programme.
“The wrong vaccination policy really irritated citizens in Thailand,” said Shih, who added that the government had made a deal for 10 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab, but had only received half so far.
“Although China provided more than six million doses of Sinovac, it isn’t enough,” he added.
On Saturday, Thailand reported a record of nearly 22,000 new reported Covid-19 cases and the highest number of daily deaths: 212.
Overall, it has reported 736,522 cases of the coronavirus, including 6,066 deaths, since the pandemic began last year.
A youth-led street protest movement for democracy rose up last year and at its peak drew tens of thousands to rallies in Bangkok.
The demonstrators called for the resignation of Prayuth, the former army chief who came to power in a 2014 coup, as well as changes to the constitution.
Most shockingly, in a country where the king is revered almost as a god, the demonstrators also called for changes to the monarchy.
The arrest of key leaders saw the protesters melt away and they are struggling to regain the momentum of 2020.