Pro-democracy protesters use umbrellas to shield from a police water cannon during an anti-government rally in Bangkok on October 16, 2020. Photo: AFP/Vachira Vachira/NurPhoto

Convinced of their high moral purpose, human-rights organizations are often guilty of rushing out statements that don’t pass the sniff test when it comes to keeping things in perspective. In doing so, they undermine their credibility.

So it is with Amnesty International, which recently criticized law-enforcement authorities in Thailand for a “deeply alarming escalation in policing protests” by using water cannon and dye against anti-monarchy demonstrators.

But this is Thailand, which in six major confrontations dating back to the October 1973 student-led uprising has seen more than 270 people killed and 2,500 wounded by gunfire from tanks, helicopter gunships and automatic weapons.

Still fresh in many minds is the April-May 2010 military crackdown against United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship demonstrators, the so-called Red Shirts, which left 87 people confirmed dead, 51 missing and 2,100 injured.

Analysts say the live streaming of the latest protests has added a whole new dimension, unnerving police and making it difficult for them to execute orders as the situation continues to evolve. 

Without military intervention, so far at least, water jets fired from admittedly ugly black armored cars would seem tame by comparison, but both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch condemned it as an over-reaction. 

“The excessive force used to disperse peaceful protests was unwarranted and in no way complied with the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality,” Amnesty said in an October 16 statement.

Minimizing casualties

“The use of water cannons and irritants not only poses a serious risk of injury, the use of dye is indiscriminate and could lead to the arbitrary targeting and arrest of peaceful protesters,” it said. 

“In policing assemblies, Thai authorities should respect, protect and ensure the exercise of the human rights of organizers and participants. They must also ensure the safety and security of journalists, observers, and other members of the public observing the protests.” 

Human Rights Watch also criticized the “unnecessary” use of water cannon against peaceful demonstrators on October 16, which came after the government declared a state of emergency the previous day in an effort to deter future protests.

As righteous as the mission may be, all governments – even unpopular ones – have the right to exercise crowd control if demonstrations disrupt daily life. It’s the way they go about it and the tactics employed to minimize casualties that’s important.

Before president Kim Dae-jung finally put a stop to the use of chemical agents when he came power in the late 1990s, South Korean police had crowd control down to a virtual art form.

During the three years of daily pro-democracy demonstrations I covered in South Korea in the 1980s, only four people were killed on the street – all of them accidentally hit in the head by rifle-fired teargas canisters.

That was due almost entirely to the discipline of unarmed riot police, and their liberal use of water cannon and a powerful combination of teargas and pepper fog, which caused large watery blisters to form around unprotected necks.

The ‘grabbers’

Painful maybe, but it ensured there was always a distance between the young protesters and the main body of riot police, most of them young men serving national service, equipped with shields, helmets, heavy padding and gas masks.

Flanking them were the so-called “grabbers,” professional cops in denim and sneakers who would run in and arrest anyone who ventured too close. It didn’t always work, but it was responsible for preventing the close-in engagement that leads to casualties.

In Manila in 1991, I was shocked when a thin line of riot police with ratty-looking bamboo shields suddenly pulled out .45-caliber automatic pistols as protesters carrying nothing but banners threatened to overrun them outside the US Embassy.

While journalists couldn’t function without a gas mask, the South Korean students appeared to mutate over time, staying in the street for hours with nothing but plastic food wrap across their eyes and toothpaste smeared under their noses.

Foreign cameramen who had covered demonstrations around the world all said they had never encountered such strong teargas. Those who went on to the Middle East found the Israeli variety used during Intifada didn’t require masks.   

In the early 2000s, the London-based Tapol human-rights group criticized the government for selling Jakarta British-made Tactica armored personnel carriers, fitted with water cannon, which were subsequently sent to Papua.

That was after five security personnel were hacked to death during violent street protests in the Papua provincial capital Jayapura, where police were without any crowd-control equipment.

In an earlier era, it would have been a bloodbath, evidenced by the Santa Cruz graveyard massacre in East Timor in November 1991 when Indonesians troops shot and killed at least 250 pro-independence demonstrators.

A decade later, at least 12 demonstrators were killed in protests in Central Jakarta. In most cases, they were hit by rubber bullets fired at what turned out to be lethal range by panicky soldiers who did not have water cannon to keep the protesters at bay.

John McBeth is a regular Asia Times contributor specializing in Southeast Asia.