Four people have died and at least 100 have been injured during the escalating anti-government protests in Bangkok, as demonstrators fight to overthrow Prime Minister Yingluck and her allies. Reformists believe Yingluck is simply a proxy for her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2010 military coup. Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets last week in the biggest demonstration the polarized country has seen in three years. This time around, journalists are using drone cameras to capture unprecedented footage of the political turmoil.
News organizations and freelance journalists with camera-donned UAVs are shooting videos and photographs of the ongoing violent clashes between demonstrators and police. Police have taken to tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons to try to control the massive crowds, who are throwing gas canisters back at the cops.
Ousted Prime Minister Thaksin, accused of widespread corruption, still has many loyal supporters in the country and his party maintains control of the parliament. Tension between pro-government supporters, referred to as “Red Shirts,” and the reformist Democrat opposition, “Yellow Shirts” was heightened when the Thai government passed an amnesty bill last month wiping corruption charges against Thaksin and allowing him to return to the country.
In the protests that followed, Yellow Shirts raided the country's Finance Ministry and Foreign Ministry compounds, and cut electricity to the Department of Special Investigation (the Thai FBI). Dozens of schools and the UN's Bangkok office have been closed. Prime Minister Yingluck made a plea to negotiate to restore peace yesterday, but opposition leadership said they would not stop until she had been removed from power so an unelected "people's court" could pick a new prime minister. Yingluck has now fled to a secret location.
Meanwhile, drone footage of the infighting is circulating through news sites and across social media, such as on Twitter via the hashtag #ThaiDrone.
The detailed shots offer a new and more accurate perspective on the longstanding political violence in Thailand, where press coverage is notoriously partisan and biased. It can also help calculate the crowd size at demonstrations, often a point of dispute between the pro- and anti-government groups. At last week's rally at Democracy Monument in Bangkok security forces estimated 100,000 protesters were present, while an opposition leader put the number closer to 400,000.
The Bangkok Post captured the rally at Democracy Monument. Image via Facebook
As quadcopters become cheaper and easier to use, citizen drones and drone journalism are a growing trend. The unmanned planes are regularly used by media giants News Corp. and the Associated Press, often for disaster reporting: Drone footage of the typhoon in the Philippines discovered two dead bodies in the aftermath of the storm. According to Quartz, UAVs with cameras cost news outlets between $2,500 and $6,200—hardly cheap, but much less expensive than a regular helicopter.
In Thailand, drones also have the advantage of being accessible without having to go through the authorities, who often want to downplay the scope of the unrest. “What drones give you is anywhere, anytime access to the sky,” former Wired editor and drone manufacturer Chris Anderson told the New York Times. “That perspective is something a journalist just wouldn’t have unless he waited for officials, or hired a plane.”
That is, for now at least. In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration listed journalism as one of the potential commercial uses of UAVs when restrictions are lifted in 2015, and citizens are free to fly them in American airspace. However, that will most likely come with fresh regulations for DIY droners; citizens may be required to get a license or background check to use quadcopters.