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Police fire rubber bullets, tear gas at protesters rallying against Thai PM

Police fire water cannon at protesters in Bangkok, Thailand.

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and denounce government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Thai police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon against protesters, who attended the rally in defiance of COVID-19 restrictions in the capital city on Sunday.

Many demonstrators carried mock body bags to represent coronavirus deaths, as they marched on the Government House, where the prime minister’s office is located.

A frontline group wearing gas masks and hard hats were leading some protesters who piled the mock body bags flecked with red paint near the intersection of the capital's Democracy Monument.

"The government has been poor at managing the situation and if we don't do anything there will be no change," a protester told Reuters, who like other demonstrators blame the prime minister and his government for mismanaging the COVID-19 pandemic.

A protest organizer also shouted "We will die from COVID if we stay home, that is why we have to come out," AFP reported.

Police used force to stop the protesters after they tried to dismantle barbed wire and metal barricades set up by the authorities to block roads, forcing the demonstrators to retreat.  

It remains unclear how many were injured.   

Sunday’s protests marked one year since a pro-democracy movement in Thailand that attracted thousands of protesters across the country calling for Prayut's resignation, the rewriting of the constitution that helped the former coup leader hold on to power after 2019 elections and reforms to the kingdom's powerful monarchy.

Prayuth said at the time that his government would allow protests but would not accept demands for reform of the monarchy.

The momentum of those protests stalled after authorities began cracking down on rallies and detaining protest leaders, and after new waves of COVID-19 infections broke out.

Most of the protest leaders who were detained have been released on bail and some took part in anti-government protests last month.

The latest development comes as Thailand is currently facing its worst COVID-19 wave, registering daily case records as hospitals buckle under pressure.

As part of curbs to stem the coronavirus spread, the government imposed a new nationwide ban on public gatherings of more than five people on Friday, which carries a maximum penalty of a two-year jail term or a fine of up to 40,000 baht ($1,220), or both.

Thailand reported 11,397 infections and 101 deaths on Sunday, bringing the cumulative total to 403,386 cases and 3,341 fatalities which the vast majority of it is due to the spread of the highly transmissible Alpha and Delta variants.

Police urged people not to join Sunday's protest, saying that it risks further spreading coronavirus and warned that those who breached the law and cause unrest will face charges.

Deputy police spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen said، "There has been increasing in the number of newly infected cases daily.”

"Joining such a rally would raise public concerns, public health concern and worsen the current situation," he said.

Street protests against the prime minister have been held in recent weeks as frustrations grow over the mounting infections, the damage the pandemic has done to the economy and the government's slow procurement of vaccines, which has drawn criticism.

Earlier this week, Thailand announced it would pair a dose of the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine with the UK-developed AstraZeneca after authorities found that hundreds of medical staff who received Sinovac jabs had contracted the virus.

"You do not need to do any mix-and-match vaccines -- just give us good vaccines," demanded a young protester Sunday.

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