Thai Protests Are Looking More and More like Hong Kong’s Democracy Movement

(Vice) – Water cannons, encrypted messaging apps and swarms of students carrying umbrellas and wearing gas masks – this isn’t Hong Kong, it’s Bangkok.

Young Thai protesters are increasingly mirroring the sophisticated tactics deployed by peers in Hong Kong as they call for democratic reforms and changes to the powerful monarchy.

“This is very much a student-led movement that shares many parallels with the Hong Kong anti-government protests,” politics lecturer Roger Huang from Sydney’s Macquarie University Huang told VICE News.

“The protestors are mostly students from universities and high schools, online savvy, and much more aware of social justice issues. Although there are opinion-leaders, it is a much more decentralized movement, probably the bravest generation of young activists at least since the turbulent 1970s in Thailand.”

Thailand is no stranger to large-scale protests, military crackdowns and coups, but the new movement has smashed taboos and flouted legal restrictions against criticizing the monarchy, which many feel has too much of a say in Thai politics. It has also called for the prime minister to resign and demanded a new constitution.

Until recently, protests were held sporadically. That changed last week after several prominent leaders were arrested and police deployed water cannons to crack down on demonstrations in the heart of the city, fuelling even further resentment and leading to now-daily rallies despite a ban on large gatherings in Bangkok. Many protesters express allegiance to the so-called Milk Tea Alliance, an informal online solidarity movement of pro-democracy activists in Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Here are just a handful of ways the Thai protests are looking more and more like what happened in Hong Kong.

Umbrellas at the ready

Since Friday, Bangkok has transformed into a sea of raincoats and umbrellas as tens of thousands of protesters braved daily rainy weather to demonstrate in multiple locations, including in provinces far from the capital.

For many, photos of umbrella protesters on the streets looked strikingly similar to the beginning of the unrest that was starting to take shape in Hong Kong back in 2014 and resurfaced last year.

Their umbrellas weren’t just protection against the weather – they were a savvy tactic that served Hong Kongers well against tear gas fired by riot police over the years as well as to shield and protect injured protesters.

Bangkok’s street vendors have also adapted, hawking goggles, helmets and raincoats as demand grows with each gathering.

Adding more eerie parallels to what happened in Hong Kong, jets of blue water were sprayed from water cannons mounted on trucks parked behind hundreds of riot police tasked with dispersing large crowds on Friday evening. The water was believed to contain chemical irritants similar to tear gas.

Acts of humanity

In a tweet that went viral, 24-year-old Hong Kong protest leader Joshua Wong drew attention to protesters in Bangkok over the weekend after they unified to part and create a path for an ambulance.

A similar moment occurred in Hong Kong during the tumultuous protests in June 2019, and the two images looked almost identical.

Young leaders facing charges

“I rose to the occasion and sang “Glory to Hong Kong” for the people of Hong Kong to hope for a freer life,” tweeted vocal Thai student and democracy protester Bunkueanun “Francis” Paothong at Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, another prominent face in Hong Kong’s movement.

“You two are my heroes,” he said. “I was moved by your words and your actions to raise the awareness of our struggle for a free and equal democracy in our country.”

Francis is now facing a possible life sentence after he was in a crowd that flashed defiant three-finger salutes from the “Hunger Games” films in the face of a royal motorcade transporting the queen. He was briefly detained and granted bail but his arrest was one of dozens in the wake of an intensifying police crackdown on protesters.

Wong, the most well-known in Hong Kong’s fight for democracy against an increasingly assertive Beijing, has repeatedly praised and encouraged protesters in Thailand.

“Brave Thais are defying draconian laws, flocking to the streets and making their voices heard. Their determination for democracy cannot be deterred,” Wong said on Twitter, flooding his timeline with dozens of Twitter threads and videos showcasing defining moments from the weekend protests in Bangkok. “We can get through this together.”

Charlie Thame, a political science lecturer at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, said many young protesters take inspiration from struggles elsewhere.

“You can’t help but be impressed by their maturity. Many are voracious learners. Their creativity is also impressive.”

Stifling media freedom

Following a protest-charged weekend, Thai authorities have threatened to censor media outlets in a bid to quell growing dissent against the government and monarchy. The controversial move echoes government censorship in Hong Kong, where media freedom and journalists face threats and are being targeted for speaking out on coverage deemed sensitive.

“The arrest, albeit temporary, of a Thai journalist on Friday night highlights the new risks for the media in covering events,” read a statement issued by the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT).

“As protests continue in Thailand, the FCCT is concerned about the safety and security of all involved. Journalists could be arrested for simply doing their jobs.”

On Aug. 10, Hong Kong media mogul and anti-government critic Jimmy Lai was arrested at his home under a new national security law – for suspected collusion with foreign forces. Scores of uniformed police officers raided the offices of Lai’s Apple Daily newspaper, which he founded in 1995.

Thais have now moved to popular encrypted app Telegram in a bid to avoid shutdowns on Facebook, where many protest gathering sites were announced. Within days of starting a main coordinating group on the app, it had more than 160,000 members. In Hong Kong, Telegram also played a role in the protests by moving to safeguard the identity of demonstrators.

But its days may be short-lived after an order circulating online in Thailand on Monday said the government was attempting to restrict access to the app within the country.