Impunity, silence surround Bangkok crackdown on ‘red shirts’ 10 years later

By Carlos Sardiña Galache

Bangkok, May 19 (efe-epa).- The 10th anniversary of the clashes between Thailand’s military and “red shirt” protesters, which bloodied the streets of Bangkok and left scores dead, was marked Tuesday amid impunity, the trauma of many and the silence of a large part of Thai society.

Red shirt supporters marked the occasion with a morning ceremony at Wat (temple) Nuan Chan in northern Bangkok where they remembered those who were killed in the protests.

“It does not matter who you are, let’s set a date to talk about what happened. Because the truth is, this event has caused the most deaths ever recorded in the fight for democracy in Thailand,” Jatuporn Prompan, a leader in the official red shirt organization, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), told reporters at the temple.

On May 19, 2010, amid bloody violence and burning buildings in downtown Bangkok, the military ended two months of street protests by supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006.

The protesters, who identified themselves by wearing red shirts, had occupied parts of the capital’s center to demand elections and oppose the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, who had assumed office after a party aligned with Thaksin was dissolved.

“Several unarmed protesters, medical volunteers, and bystanders were killed with single shots to the head, suggesting the use of snipers and high-powered scopes… At times, soldiers also shot into crowds of protesters,” the nonprofit Human Rights Watch said in a report a year later.

Thailand suffered a deep political crisis after the coup against Thaksin, which gave way to seven years marked by street protests that culminated in another coup in 2014 against the government of Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The 2014 coup was led by current prime minister Prayut Chan-ocha, a military general whose regime transitioned into a civilian government after the 2019 elections.

“Sadly, the government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, just like its predecessors, has no answers for those demanding justice for at least 98 people killed and more than 2,000 injured between April and May 2010,” said Sunai Phasuk, HRW’s Asia senior researcher in a statement earlier this month. The statement also cited the organization’s documentation alleging that the military had used “unnecessary and excessive force.”

“Through designating ‘live fire zones’ around protest sites, soldiers shot unarmed protesters, medics, reporters, and bystanders, sometimes in front of the assembled media’s cameras,” HRW said.

Until 2014 there were frequent clashes between the red shirt supporters of Thaksin, popular with the impoverished rural population in northern Thailand for his social policies, and the “yellow shirts,” conservative sections of society led by the traditional urban elite and the military, who saw Thaksin as a threat to their power and to the revered monarchy.

“The Red movement had turned millions of ordinary people to active citizens. In my opinion, despite its clinging to Thaksin throughout its years, it is a truly ‘democratic’ movement — mass-based, no solid ideology other than the electoral democracy for their own (individuals and groups) interests, not for the ‘nation’ or even the monarchy,” historian Thongchai Winichakul told EFE.

Although it has been years since the red shirts have taken to the streets, Thongchai said the UDD is “not dead yet, although I think its political relevance is almost none. Yet, to be able to revive or not, it is hard to say since it depends on many conditions in the future (less of the past). Despite that, individuals – from the hardcore to the distant supporters and everything in between – remain active.”

In recent years, the hegemony of the military and the elites has been challenged by a new party called Anakot Mai (Future Forward), founded in 2018 by charismatic 41-year-old businessman Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.

Although the party is independent from the red shirts and Thaksin, it had a similar goal of reducing the power of the military, which has carried out 13 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.

Anakot Mai became popular among young voters and managed to become the third biggest party in parliament after the 2019 elections, but it was dissolved in February by the Constitutional Court, which declared that a loan by Thanathorn to the party had violated campaign donation laws.

Lawmakers of the party managed to keep their seats in the house by forming a new party called Kao Klai (Move Forward).

Outwardly, Thailand appears to have left behind the turmoil and clashes between the “reds” and “yellows” that marked the period between 2006 and 2014, but some citizens have continued to demand justice for the victims of 2010, including members of Anakot Mai/Kao Klai.

Earlier this month, activists used laser projections to display messages such as “Searching for the Truth” on buildings in the capital, referring to the 2010 violence in a different form of protest during times of social distancing.

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