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Turbulent Thailand

Thai 'car mob' protesters call for Prayuth's resignation

Government extends soft business lockdowns at least through mid-August

Thai anti-government protesters have found a way to get around social distancing and other anti-COVID measures -- by rallying in their cars. Photo taken in Bangkok on Aug. 1.   © Getty Images

BANGKOK -- Thai protesters cruised around Bangkok in cars and on motorcycles on Sunday as a new form of anti-establishment rally took shape to call for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's resignation.

Hundreds of motorists honked their horns as they passed in front of the entrance of the base of the 1st Infantry Regiment, known as the King's Guard. The prime minister and his family live in a house on the base.

The group mainly drove around central and northern Bangkok, occasionally tooting their horns to express their discontent with the current administration's running of the country, especially its handling of the latest COVID-19 outbreak.

"The prime minister said to work from home, but people die at home," Nattawut Saikua, a protest leader, told the rally.

Thailand on Monday reported 17,970 new cases with 178 fatalities. The country's total number of cases since the dawn of the pandemic passed the 600,000 mark on Sunday.

The protesters tried to avoid hooting when they passed by hospitals, where doctors and patients are fighting the delta strain.

So-called "car mobs" have grown over the past month as protesters took to them to comply with social distancing measures. The anti-establishment movement gained steam in 2020 but has been losing its momentum as potential demonstrators fear catching the virus and being cracked down on by government forces.

Authorities banned large public gatherings in the name of fighting COVID-19. More recently, they tightened regulations due to the delta variant, and now only gatherings of up to five people are allowed.

Protesters block off a road with cars and motorcycles in Bangkok on Aug. 1.   © Getty Images

With the new vehicular rallies, protesters can avoid being too close to one another. In addition, many wear masks or face covers as well as goggles or sunglasses, as motorcyclists usually do. But during the rallies, the gear can also work to guard identities and as shields against the virus. In another measure, license plates are covered with protest messages to hide numbers.

The lockdown provides an environment suited to the car mobs, though they do invite criticism as they make use of public roads and create severe congestion. However, by holding the rallies on weekends in cities under lockdown, protesters can minimize the risk of stirring up a backlash.

The lockdowns in Bangkok and other provinces being pummeled by the delta entail soft business closures and nighttime curfews. The measures were to expire on Monday, but the government decided to extend them until Aug. 18 and expanded them to 29 provinces from 13.

"If the situation does not improve and is still worrying, the curbs will be extended to Aug. 31," said Apisamai Srirangan, spokesperson for the Thai government's COVID-19 response team.

The car mobs are making it difficult for the authorities to strictly enforce the law, which could further snarl traffic.

On Sunday, however, the protesters were met with tear gas and rubber bullets, but only after they started gathering at an intersection in the Din Daeng district of Bangkok, near the prime minister's house.

Roughly 30 car mobs took to the streets across the country on Sunday.

Many of the protesters blamed the country's low inoculation rate as the primary factor behind the delta-strain epidemic. Less than 6% of Thailand's population of nearly 70 million is fully vaccinated; roughly 21% has received one shot. The rallies may continue sporadically unless the government successfully contains the outbreak and addresses the economic pain brought on by the lockdowns and other measures.

Buddhist monks and temple workers stand around a coffin of a COVID-19 victim during a funeral ceremony at Wat Bang Muang, in Nonthaburi province, on the outskirts of Bangkok.    © AP

The government is trying to scrape up vaccine supplies from around the world. A million and a half Pfizer doses donated by the U.S. arrived on Friday. But the country continues to rely on locally produced AstraZeneca jabs, the delivery of which has been slower than early government proclamations.

"I don't think our system is problematic," Prayuth said in a recorded interview released by the Government House on Thursday. "If we take our epidemic into concern only, it may seem shocking in terms of cases and deaths. But I would like you to take the toll of our neighboring countries into account. Now, every country in the world is being impacted, more or less."

But more Thais, even those who used to support the prime minister, are falling into a state of disbelief. Among the protesters in the latest Bangkok car mob was a former member of the pro-establishment People's Democratic Reform Committee. The member, nicknamed Luuk Nat, became famous for joining royalist rallies in his Ferrari.

Luuk Nat took part in the car mob in a black Range Rover. "So dumb. Got an ultraroyalist awaken," said a placard he held up from the sunroof. The SUV had three white stripes running up the middle of its hood, imitating the three-finger salute protesters use to show their disapproval of the administration.

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