On the front lines of pro-democracy protests in Thailand, an unlikely new mascot has emerged: a giant inflatable duck.
When protesters tried to break through concrete barricades and gather in front of parliament on Tuesday, they faced a police response that human rights groups have called unnecessary and excessive. The protesters, calling for democratic reforms including restrictions on the power of the monarchy, were repeatedly attacked with tear gas and water cannons. Some of the water blasts contained chemical irritants.
Amid the chaos, a collection of giant ducks, initially brought to the protest as a joke, were quickly repurposed as shields. Since then they have been celebrated as heroes of the movement.
Images of the confrontation were widely shared on social media. Photos were also taken later of battered ducks, limp and covered in purple tint fired from the water cannon.
In a new rally on Wednesday, protesters held up posters praising the bravery of the ducks, and protesters carried a flock of them on their heads as they marched towards the Thai police headquarters. “Stop harassing people and inflatable ducks,” read one sign. The protest artwork has emerged online, portraying the ducks as muscular fighters protecting students and how superhero figure.
Young activists in Thailand have regularly used humor and creativity, said Tracy Beattie, a researcher at the Australian Institute for Strategic Policy who specializes in Thai politics. “This time, the yellow inflatable rubber ducks have become a new symbol for the pro-democracy movement, not only because they are cute, but also because they highlight the absurdity and disproportionality of the situation,” he said.
Human Rights Watch has expressed concern over the police response, saying it observed the use of water cannons mixed with purple dye and apparent tear gas, tear gas grenades and pepper spray grenades on Tuesday.
At least 55 people were injured, most from inhaling tear gas, according to the Bangkok emergency medical service. Clashes also broke out between pro-democracy activists and royalists. Six pro-democracy protesters received treatment for gunshot wounds.
Police denied using live ammunition or rubber bullets and said they were investigating. Water cannons were used on Tuesday as protesters tried to break into a restricted area near parliament, a spokesman said.
The ducks were initially brought to Tuesday’s rally to taunt authorities, who had blocked access to the parliament building. The protesters joked that the only way to get to parliament, where possible changes to the constitution were being discussed, would be to send rubber ducks along the river. They wanted the deputies and senators to approve a proposal that would undo the changes that were made to the letter under the military government, but this was rejected.
Joshua Wong, a prominent Hong Kong activist who has supported the Thai pro-democracy movement, praised the inventiveness of the protesters. “Creativity wins,” he said on Twitter. “Long live the rubber ducks.”
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