The Policing of Anti-government Protests: Thailand’s 2013–2014 Demonstrations and a Crisis of Police Legitimacy

Published date01 April 2017
Date01 April 2017
Subject MatterArticles
The Policing of Anti-
government Protests:
Thailand’s 2013–2014
Demonstrations and a
Crisis of Police Legitimacy
Janjira Sombatpoonsiri1
Street interactions between the police and protesters can serve as a barometer
of state–society conflict. This article seeks to examine the way in which the police
respond to anti-government protests, and how these responses influence the
politics of legitimacy at stake. Through the examination of protest policing in
Thailand’s decade-long political conflicts, which reached the zenith in 2013–2014,
I will show that police responses to these protests were a mixture of three
approaches: accommodative, restrictive and hands-off. At least four factors
influenced the interplay of these methods: (i) the police’s tactical improvement,
which however faces structural challenges; (ii) a history of police politicization;
(iii) extreme characteristics of the protests; and (iv) the nature of conflict over
governmental legitimacy contributing to public mistrust in the police. The Thai
case illustrates that handling anti-government protests necessitates political sensi-
tivity and creativity. Otherwise, the government and especially the police can run
the risk of further damaging public trust and institutional legitimacy.
Protest, police, legitimacy, trust, conflict, Thailand
Interactions between the police and protesters reveal a facet of state–society conflict,
and the police handling of protests reflect whether or not the state is able to deal
with the conflict. Protest events generally arise out of a conflict background
1 Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University, Bangkok, Thailand.
Corresponding author:
Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University, Prachan Road, Pranakorn,
Bangkok – 10200, Thailand.
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
4(1) 95–122
2017 SAGE Publications India
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2347797016689224
96 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 4(1)
where institutional channels of conflict resolution are viewed as dysfunctional or
insufficient in addressing grievances of a protest group. From Ukraine to Brazil,
Tunisia to the Philippines, India to the United States, Spain to Malaysia and
Hong Kong to Egypt, protesters take to the street questioning the executive’s
legitimacy. Dramatic protests in these countries have led to the downfall of
dictatorial and elected governments (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011; Engler &
Engler, 2016; Erickson Nepstad, 2011; Janjira, 2015a). Police responses to these
protests are potentially brutal fundamentally because the police are first and foremost
mandated to preserve internal order. Political survival of a government represents a
continuation of this order. The police are, as a result, assigned to defend the executive
usually at the cost of offending the people protesting against the government.
The police violent reactions can end up consolidating the cause of struggle,
furthering the government’s crisis of legitimacy.
Nonetheless, police offence of anti-government protesters is not always the case.
Tolerance or even facilitation of the protesters is possible when the police are
motivated to recognize a civil right to public assembly (Geneva Academy of
International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2014; Wahlström, 2011).
Although this recognition can result from a normative development on the institu-
tional level, its process is highly political. It involves the ability of a government
and its security apparatus to articulate the politics of legitimacy being played out in
street protests (Janjira, 2013). The police success in facilitating and at the same time
protecting anti-government protesters can help lessen mistrust in police institution.
It possibly contests protesters’ accusation that a government is abusive and authori-
tarian (Goldsmith, 2005).
In this article, I seek to examine police responses to anti-government protests
and contextual factors influencing them. I specifically ask the following questions.
(i) Why does a government not always opt for an offensive approach to quell
protesters opposing it? (ii) What is the political process that influences this decision?
(iii) How does the mixed method of policing anti-government protests shape the
politics of legitimacy?
The analysis in this article is drawn from the 2013–2014 protests by the
People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), whose aim was to bring
down Thailand’s then elected government. Between July and November 2014,
I conducted in-depth interviews with 22 police officers, who were in charge of
commanding crowd control units during the 2013–2014 protests.1 In assessing
a general perception of the police regarding anti-government protests, I carried
out a qualitative survey of rank-and-file officers (200 samples) who were
mobilized from different regions in Thailand to handle the PDRC demonstra-
tions.2 Official reports and news archives serve to provide basic data of protest
events, and cross-check information provided by interviewees and question-
naire respondents.3
This article demonstrates that the Thai police relied on mixed policing tactics,
which at times provoked demonstrators, occasionally de-escalated street clashes and
eventually tolerated violence against protesters. The article argues that at least four
factors influenced this combination of tactics: (i) the police tactical improvement,
which faced structural challenges; (ii) a history of police politicization; (iii) extreme

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT