On the front lines of Thailand’s pro-democracy, a new and unlikely mascot is protesting: a giant, inflatable duck.
As protesters tried to get past concrete barricades and gather outside parliament on Tuesday, they faced a police response that rights groups have described as unnecessary and exaggerated. Protesters calling for democratic reforms, including curbs on the power of the monarchy, were repeatedly fired with tear gas and water cannons. Some of the water explosions contained chemical irritants.
In the midst of the chaos, a collection of giant ducks, originally brought to the protest as a joke, were immediately reinstated as shields. They have since been celebrated as movement heroes.
Pictures of the standoff were widely shared on social media. Then photos were also taken later of battered ducks, hanging and covered with purple dye fired from the water cannon.
At a further rally on Wednesday, protesters held signs of the ducks’ courage, and protesters carried a herd over them as they marched toward Thai police headquarters. “Stop harassing the people and inflatable ducks,” reads a sign. Protest art has emerged online, portraying the ducks as muscular warriors protecting students and as a superhero figure.
Young activists in Thailand have regularly used humor and creativity, said Tracy Beattie, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute who specializes in Thai politics. “This time, yellow inflatable rubber ducks have become a new symbol of the democratic movement, not only because they are cute, but also because they highlight the absolute absurdity and disproportion in the situation,” she said.
Human Rights Watch has expressed concern over the police response, saying they had observed the use of water cannon jets laced with purple dye and an apparent tear gas chemical, tear gas grenades and pepper spray grenades on Tuesday.
At least 55 people were injured, most as a result of tear gas inhalation, according to the Bangkok Emergency Medical Service. Clashes also broke out between the pro-democracy activists and royalists. Six pro-democracy protesters were treated for gunshot wounds.
Police refused to use live ammunition or rubber bullets, saying they were investigating. Water cannons were used Tuesday as protesters tried to break into a restricted area near parliament, a spokesman said.
The ducks were originally brought to Tuesday’s rally to spot the authorities who had blocked access to the parliament building. Protesters joked that the only way to reach parliament where possible changes to the constitution were under discussion would be to send rubber ducks along the river. They wanted MPs and senators to approve a proposal to undo changes made to the charter under military rule, but this was rejected.
Joshua Wong, a prominent Hong Kong activist who has supported the Thai democracy movement, praised the protesters’ ingenuity. “Creativity wins,” he said on Twitter. “Long live rubber ducks.”