A new and unlikely mascot has emerged on the front lines of pro-democracy protests in Thailand: a giant, inflatable duck.
As protesters tried to cross concrete barricades and gather in front of parliament on Tuesday, they faced a police response that human rights groups described as unnecessary and excessive. Protesters calling for democratic reforms, including limiting the monarchy̵
Amid the chaos, a collection of giant ducks, originally brought to the protest as a joke, were immediately rebuilt as shields. Since then, they have been known as heroes of the movement.
Images of the conflict were widely circulated on social media. Later, pictures were taken of battered ducks hanging and covered with purple dye fired by the water cannon.
At a further rally on Wednesday, protesters held plaques praising the bravery of the ducks, and protesters carried a flock of them over their heads as they marched to Thai police headquarters. “Stop harassing people and inflatable ducks,” a sign said. Protesting works of art have appeared online, portraying ducks as muscular fighters defending students and as a superhero figure.
Young activists in Thailand regularly use humor and creativity, said Tracy Beatty, a researcher at the Australian Institute for Strategic Policy, which specializes in Thai politics. “This time, the yellow inflatable rubber ducks have become a new symbol of the pro-democracy movement, not only because they are cute, but also because they emphasize the absolute absurdity and disproportion of the situation,” she said.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the police response and said he had observed the use of water cannons clad in purple dye and an obvious tear gas chemical, tear grenades and pepper spray grenades.
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 Democratic protesters were treated with gunshot wounds.
Police denied using live munitions or rubber bullets and said they were investigating. Water cannons were used on Tuesday as protesters tried to enter a restricted area near parliament, a spokesman said.
The ducks were initially brought to the rally on Tuesday to mock 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 are being discussed, would be to send rubber ducks down the river. They wanted lawmakers and senators to approve a proposal to repeal changes to the charter under military rule, but this was rejected.
Joshua Wong, a prominent Hong Kong activist who supported the Thai pro-democracy movement, praised the protesters’ ingenuity. “Creativity wins,” he said on Twitter. “Long live rubber ducks.”