Facing tear gas, Thailand’s child protestors find safety in protection team

Written by RYAN ANDERS for South East Asia Globe

As Thailand's increasingly confrontational police use water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protestors, a group of volunteers from a cross-section of child protection NGOs are working to protect the most vulnerable activists in the crowd: minors

MARCH 24, 2021
Facing tear gas, Thailand’s child protestors find safety in protection team
Child in Mob volunteers at a recent protest. Photo: Ryan Anders

Two volunteers wearing hot-pink safety vests wandered through a crowd of demonstrators as the sun went down last Saturday night. They belonged to a team looking for children among a group of protestors who had gathered in the dark near the Royal Palace in central Bangkok.

By 7pm, some 1,000 people had assembled calling for democratic reform, brought together by the social-media, crowdsourced protest movement REDEM, also known as RESTART DEMOCRACY.

As has become more frequent at Thai protests in recent months, the police opened fire with water cannons, and as crowd control police boxed in the demonstrators, a young woman named Doi was struck in the chest. Terrified but not seriously injured, at just 15 years old Doi’s main concern was not her safety, but that she would miss an important O-NET test at school the next day.

By sunrise on March 21, 30 people had been detained, in merely Bangkok’s latest scuffle between civilians and police. Among the arrested were seven minors protesting that night.

“They [child demonstrators] know they have risks for being in this place,” one of the pink-vested volunteers told the Globe. “It’s not like last year when tens of thousands of people gathered and they went back home safe.”

This team of volunteers calling themselves Child in Mob has been attending protests in Bangkok since November 2020. After seeing instances of the Thai government failing to ensure the rights of politically active minors, Child in Mob volunteers decided to patrol demonstrations themselves, passing out flyers and wristbands to those under 18, providing them with psychological, legal and physical protection.

For doing this, the volunteers put themselves and their civil society organisations, among them some of the largest in Thailand working with children and youth, in jeopardy of angering the Thai government by appearing at the protests, even if only in a support role.

“My organisation works with the government,” said an anonymous Child in Mob volunteer. ”We have to keep a good relationship with them. We didn’t agree with everything they do but we have to work [with them]. That’s why we have to be sensitive on this issue.”

Politically active kids have been particularly visible in Thailand over the past 12 months, thanks in large part to the galvanising force of youth in the kingdom’s pro-democracy protest movement, which peaked late-last year. On the younger end, demonstration groups organised by school children, Bad Student most prominent among them, have organised several protests, in addition to those staged by university students and young adults such as Seri Thoey, Free Youth and the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration.

“When the protests started last year, we had an increase in calls from the kids experiencing negative consequences [to protesting],” said Ilya Smirnoff, a co-founder of Child in Mob. Smirnoff is also head of มูลนิธิสายเด็ก, a hotline for children in distress.

“[It’s] threatening for the kids to exercise their rights to protest, and then they see the police just barge into the school, talking to the principal.”

Thailand has seen waves of protests since early 2020. Demonstrators’ demands include the dissolution of parliament and the drafting of a new constitution. Recent months have also seen unprecedented challenges by protestors to the kingdom’s all-powerful monarchy, with scores of protesters charged for violating Thailand’s famously harsh lèse majesté law.

Some minors encountered problems after returning to school after protesting, said Ruang Kaeokamechun, another co-founder of Children in Mob. As with her co-founders, her day job is in child welfare, running an online project called Hinghoy Noy, educating children on topics ranging from menstruation to cyber bullying.

Kaeokamechun became upset after observing police and journalists take pictures of child protesters wearing school uniforms with their names embroidered on the front, thus identifying them.

“Children and youth are scared of people from the government,” Kaeokamechun told the Globe. She said that in some cases police went to the homes of kid protesters and confronted the parents.

“[They ask] Why don’t you take care of your kid? Why do you let your children go to the protest?”

Smirnoff, Kaeokamechun and a handful of their contacts began thinking about how they could help protect protesting minors. They formed a core team of about ten, most of which worked at child welfare NGOs like Childline, SHero Thailand, UNICEF, Save the Children and Amnesty International Thailand.

They organised the pink-coloured safety vests, had “Child in Mob” printed on the back in bold capital letters and began passing out pink and orange wristbands to children they identified at demonstrations. The group has since changed their name to “Child in Protest”, realising the negative connotation of the phrase mob in English. Their materials are yet to catch up.

We are aware that like when children are in dangerous situations sometimes the effects, the psychological effects, come afterwards, like a year or two afterwards

The group works to uphold the rights enshrined for children in Thailand. Minors in the kingdom, from a legal perspective, have special protections compared to adults, detailed in broad legal measures such as the Child Protection Act and Juvenile and Family Court and Procedure Act.

In October, then-UNICEF representative for Thailand Thomas Davin pointed out in a blog post that the Thai government is obligated under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to ensure minors must “not be at risk of threats or any forms of intimidation or violence when expressing their opinions”.

In reality, however, these politically active kids are taking significant risks. Some encounter angry, even violent parents when they return home, said Smirnoff. Saturday’s clash shows that some children even risk physical and psychological harm, or even arrest by authorities.

“We are aware that like when children are in dangerous situations sometimes the effects, the psychological effects, come afterwards, like a year or two afterwards,” said a volunteer who helped co-found the group.

By January this year, Childline had secured funds from UNICEF to hire a coordinator for the Child in Mob team. Amnesty International provided free office space and logistical support. The team, between six and 15 people depending on the size of the protest, hand out wristbands so kids can quickly be identified and given medical aid in an emergency. Pink wristbands designate a youth is 16 or 17 years old. Orange is for minors 15 and younger.

The team also carries flyers with them. One side has tips – for example, instructing kids to talk to their parents before attending a demonstration. The other side has telephone numbers – in addition to Childline, kids can dial SHero Thailand and Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, both NGOs providing legal support for people summoned or arrested by the police.

“[Some kids] take pictures of the flyers and distribute them on social media,” told a volunteer at an afternoon protest this month. “Some of them come so frequently that they [already] have the number with them [on their phone].”

To boost the training of Child in Mob volunteers, Childline sponsored a workshop, also supported by UNICEF, at the beginning of March. They were taught how to better identify minors at demonstrations needing psychological first aid, as well as educated the volunteers on the range of child protection measures available to children in Thailand.

Efforts by the Child in Mob team are showing results. At protests, some children check in with the Child in Mob team “just to show that they are here”, said a volunteer with “A” on her name tag. She did not wish to be identified.

Some kids attend so frequently that the team knows them now by name. One anonymous volunteer told the story of two girls who recently came without supervision to march from Victory Monument to Prayut’s residence.

“A volunteer asked them if they wanted to walk together to the safe zone,” said the Child in Mob volunteer.

Along the way, the kids asked questions about what the protesters were demanding. “[They asked] what does reform mean and these kind of terms that people are using in the news.”

Tagging the kids at protests with wristbands has also lowered the risk of injury. At recent protests, all but one of the dozens of medical volunteers watching over the crowds interviewed by the Globe knew that the wristbands identified minors in the demonstration.

One anonymous Child in Mob volunteer reported being present when a minor in the crowd needed medical aid after tear gas was fired at a child.

“We take care of the children first,” said Nu, a volunteer doctor with the Red Cross. “If we see any children without a wristband we send them to Child in Mob and they give them one.”

A Child in Mob volunteer holds up a sign explaining the coloured wristbands. Photo: Ryan Anders

In addition to kid protestors, the Child in Mob volunteers are themselves at risk due to the Thai government’s confrontational crowd-control tactics, not to mention the possibility of government retribution off the streets.

Only a few volunteers spoke to a Globe reporter under their real names, citing that fear of legal or professional consequences for their work during demonstrations.

On March 17, the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation (MHESI) was reportedly preparing to censure chancellors from universities that employed lecturers who had offered bail to students activists awaiting trial. Their concerns are well founded considering widely-reported incidences of state-appointed governors throughout the country leaning on the heads of universities to end student protests just last September.

Even non-governmental organisations supporting the Child in Mob team aren’t safe. Facebook recently published a report stating Amnesty International Thailand has been directly targeted as recently as February 19 with disinformation coming from a network of fake social media accounts with links to the Thai Military’s Internal Security Operations Command.

Civil society organisations find it challenging to work proactively with the government for the protection of protestors.

“We would like to, but they won’t communicate with us,” wrote a Red Cross volunteer in a message to the Globe.

During recent protests, volunteers from Child in Mob, the Red Cross, the Phramongkutklao College of Medicine and others wear brightly coloured safety vests to signal to the police that they are present only to provide aid, not to participate politically. Despite their precautions, a vest-wearing volunteer medic with the Doctor and Nurse Association was brutally beaten by riot police on February 13.

No matter how many volunteers we have, [if] we have one volunteer or we have 100 volunteers, it doesn’t matter if the authorities don’t do their jobs

In an attempt to prevent such attacks, Child in Mob spokeswoman Piyanut Kotsan, the director of Amnesty International Thailand, met with an official at the Thai Royal Police main branch in December to introduce the Child in Mob project.

”We told them about what we do and our concerns,” she told the Globe.

Piyanut also said on some occasions Amnesty sends a letter with volunteers’s names to the police in advance of a demonstration.

“We normally have a letter for the volunteer to identify them as volunteers and what they are doing and an emergency contact. In case the authorities ask who they are, they can be identified that they are volunteers and not protestors,” she said. “We inform the central office, so it’s up to them if they will circulate it or not.”

It is unclear how much longer the Child in Mob team can continue, despite their capacity building efforts. UNICEF’s funding for Child in Mob’s lone coordinator runs out in June.

Ultimately, making it safe for children to speak up and ask inquisitive questions is the Thai government’s job, says Kotsan.

“This project shouldn’t happen at all because the authorities and state need to ensure the security of people when they exercise their rights for the freedom of expression and freedom of assembly,” she said.

“No matter how many volunteers we have, [if] we have one volunteer or we have 100 volunteers, it doesn’t matter if the authorities don’t do their jobs.”