Cover photo credit: Matt Aho / used with permission
Guest contribution by Wirawat Somnuek
Ten years ago, underneath the hammering April sun, it was a summer like no other for many. The television and online media in Thailand were filled with the news of citizens and the government locked in a grim embrace on the streets of Bangkok, the so-called fa-amorn [“undying heaven”] of the nation.
Going back to March 2010, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD)–also known as the Red Shirts–had gathered in Bangkok to call for then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve parliament and initiate fresh elections.
As the protest dragged on for over two months, from March 12 to May 19, 2010, the government declared that they would use force to crackdown the protestors.
Both sides blamed each other for the losses, both in life and collateral. The Red Shirts pointed the finger at the soldiers taking aim and firing at civilians, while the government branded the protesters as terrorists who harbored a mysterious cadre of black-shirted soldier-killers.
The People’s Information Center: The April-May 2010 Crackdowns (PIC) released a report in 2012 stating that a total of 111,303 live rounds were fired at civilians. Even as protestors surrendered, the firing continued and they were blocked from leaving the area. Some civilians sought shelter in Wat Pathum Wanaram, a temple which had been declared a neutral zone, yet soldiers still fired into the temple area, killing a nurse inside a Red Cross tent. She had been hit by no less than eleven bullets.
In the aftermath, many key figures in the Centre for Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES)–effectively a war-room set up by the government to deal with the protests–went on to assume roles in the military government which followed. Many of them would also be appointed as senators after the 2018 general election.
I invite the reader to travel back in time to the events which still hold an emotional charge for many. I would also like to raise some questions regarding the responsibility, or lack thereof, of the government. The Thai state imposed violence on its own people, some of whom lost their lives, while others became cripples for life. Many more were imprisoned and a few had to flee the country, living as exiles in foreign lands never to return home.
Ninety-four human sacrifices in a tumultuous year for Thai politics
“… he was blinded by a single bullet lodged in his skull, but he gained a new sight from the very same bullet. And when he awakened to the new sight, he saw that the country in which he lived was covered in darkness. There was no escape, no refuge, and no justice. There was no place for his faith. Everything that he once laid eyes on was but an illusion…”
(From Awakened by Claudio Sopranzetti, 2020)
On March 12, 2010, the UDD opened with a protest titled “12 March, 12 o’clock: Beat the war drums against the aristocrats (amat),” with UDD members and supporters from across the country streaming into Bangkok.
Two days later, a huge stage was erected near the Phan Fa Lilat Bridge. It would host many demonstrations from which a call was repeatedly being made for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to resign within the next 24 hours.
Foreign media estimated that around 200,000 people were present at this historic gathering; it was one of the largest mass protests in Thai political history.
All the while, the protest gatherings began to take over various parts of Bangkok. They took over the area in front of the 11th Infantry Regiment headquarters, the Democrat Party headquarters, and Government House. They then made a statement which stated that:
1) parliament must be dissolved;
2) they reiterated that this was their only goal;
3) they were open to negotiations;
4) all parties would disperse as soon as parliament was dissolved;
5) fair and open elections must follow the dissolution of parliament.
The government did send a representative to negotiate with the UDD, but to no avail, because the government would not budge from its proposal to dissolve parliament within nine months. The UDD, for its part, wouldn’t budge from its demand for parliament to be dissolved within 15 days, either.
After the negotiations crumbled, the government declared a state of emergency (under the 2005 “Emergency Decree on Public Administration in State of Emergency” law), and set up the CRES to manage the operational aspects of the crackdown.
The operations began in earnest on April 10, 2010, at the Phan Fa Lilat Bridge on Ratchadamnoen Road, the Khok Wua intersection on Tanao Road, the Democracy Monument, and Satri Wittaya school. The first day of the crackdown wounded 838 people and killed 21 protestors, one Japanese news photographer, and five soldiers, for a total death toll of 26. The UDD immediately decided to consolidate its position at Ratchaprasong, dismantling all other protest stages and combining them there by April 15.
The impasse dragged on for over a month until May 19 when fires erupted in the World Trade Center shopping mall, as well as at many provincial halls across Isaan.
The physical violence and confusion was also reflected in the verbal blows being traded in the political arena. In total, the crackdown resulted in 94, as estimated by PIC. In the particularly bloody period of May 13 to 19. One person was paralyzed by a stray bullet and later died of his wounds. The courts later ruled that his death was accidental because he was not directly aimed at.
Calculations made from information in PIC’s report, at least 36 of the 94 people killed were from Isaan.
In the 19 court cases which have been concluded (concerning 29 of the 94 killed), the courts ruled that though the bullets were undeniably fired from army lines, no specific shooters could be identified and therefore no one could be held responsible.
In June 2018, there were reports of a senior army officer meeting with public prosecutors. Apparently, he was successful in convincing the public prosecutors into reclassifying the remaining cases from ones where there was a known alleged perpetrator, to ones where the perpetrator could not be identified. This allowed the cases to be dropped by the public prosecutors before they had even gone to court.
Citing a lack of evidence, a military court in March 2019 acquitted the eight soldiers prosecuted for the killing of six civilians on the grounds of Wat Pathum Waram temple.
The shopping mall and provincial hall fires
At the time, the red shirts were branded as people who “burned down the country.” Yet, the South Bangkok Criminal Court and the Court of Appeal acquitted Saichol Paebua and Pinij Jan-Narong of arson for the burning of the World Trade Center (now Central World) shopping mall.
On May 1, 2019 the South Bangkok Civil Court read out the Supreme Court’s ruling that six insurance companies should pay damages to the Stock Exchange of Thailand and other plaintiffs, to the sum of 100 million baht, pursuant to the fire at the World Trade Center shopping mall on May 19, 2010. Though no one has been successfully prosecuted for any of the fires in Bangkok, the court ruled that the flames were a direct result of “a terrorist uprising for political ends.”
The court cases for the five provincial halls in Isaan set ablaze went as follows:
1) In Maha Sarakham where the provincial hall itself was untouched by flames (but some tires and parts of a garage were instead set on fire), there were nine defendants. The Supreme Court gave out the maximum sentence of five years and eight months. Today, it is believed that some of that number are still incarcerated. In November 2015, it was reported that one of them, Uthai Khongha, died in prison.
2) In Ubon Ratchathani, there were 20 defendants. The Supreme Court sentenced one of them, Pichet Thambudda, to life in prison. The remainder were sentenced to varyingly lesser jail terms. Four of them remain in prison to this day; three in Nakhon Ratchasima’s Khlong Phai prison and one in Ubon Ratchathani prison.
3) In Udon Thani, 22 received the maximum sentence of 13 years and six months from the Court of Appeal. All of them have since been freed.
4) In Khon Kaen, four defendants received a maximum sentence of 13 years each. One of the two remains incarcerated.
5) In Mukdahan, 29 defendants were sentenced by the Supreme Court to a maximum of 15 years in prison. Four of that number remain in prison today.
The old players are still here after the 2014 military coup
On May 22, 2014, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha led a military coup under the banner of a so-called National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). He ousted the Pheu Thai party government led by Yingluck Shinawatra. Interestingly, many crackdown-era CRES members were appointed to key positions in the post-coup government.
For example, former deputy director of CRES, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, became a deputy-chairman of the NCPO in addition to being appointed as defence minister. Gen. Anupong Paochinda, former assistant director of CRES, also became a member of the NCPO and Minister of Interior. Gen. Daopong Rattanasuwan, a former CRES committee member, became the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment and the Minister of Education under the NCPO before eventually becoming a privy councillor to the king.
Not only that, some were also appointed to the National Legislative Assembly of Thailand (NLA) [a stand-in for an elected parliament while under military rule]. One such beneficiary of this reshuffling was Gen. Apichat Phenkitti, former Supreme Commander of the armed forces. Admiral Kamthorn Phumhiran, former Commander in Chief of the Royal Thai Navy, and former Commander in Chief of the Royal Thai Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Itthiphorn Suphawong, also followed suit to the NLA.
Gen. Aksara Kerdphol, former head of operations at CRES and his deputy there, Gen. Chatchalerm Chalermsuk, were also rewarded in the same manner. Most notably though, is the meteoric rise of Gen. Apirat Kongsompong from the commanding officer of the 11th Infantry Regiment, which hosted CRES. Not only was he rewarded with the post and pay of an NLA member, but he is also now the Commander in Chief of the Royal Thai Army. All three of them are also concurrently members of the upper house, courtesy of the Thai taxpayer.
A decade in search of justice
Ten years have passed. Both the relatives of those killed and the leaders of the red shirt movement have tried and tried to bring those responsible for the killings to justice. They have yet to meet with any success.
In 2013, the attorney general prosecuted former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Suthep Thaugsuban, the deputy prime minister at the time, on charges of conspiracy to murder and attempted murder for issuing the order to crackdown on the protesters. All of the courts, from the lowest court to the Supreme Court, acquitted them. For good measure, the courts also shifted responsibility for any further legal action against them to the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), on the grounds that the charge would be tantamount to gross negligence of their duties as political representatives of the people.
Later on in 2015, the NACC ruled that the facts and evidence presented were insufficient to pursue a case against Abhisit and Suthep for gross negligence of their duty at the time. In 2017 the NACC dismissed yet another petition to have the 2010 crackdown case reopened. The NACC argued that the evidence and testimonies available were insufficient for prosecution. This is despite the fact that the verdicts of all the other courts clearly stated the deaths were caused by the crackdown ordered by the government of the day and CRES.
To this day, Thai politics is still riven by conflict. Even without the outright violence as of ten years ago, the passions burn as intensely as ever. The rewriting of the constitution by the military, and the questions concerning the transparency of the 2019 elections, are like timebombs that can still be heard ticking.
Since the Red Shirts are considered to be diametrically opposed to the interests of the ruling politico-military establishment, it is no surprise that their search for justice and closure is yet to be satisfied. The family and friends of those killed can still be seen demanding justice in the form of remembrances for those slain during that fateful summer, with no answer in sight.
Note: The views expressed on The Isaan Record website are the views of the authors. They do not represent the views of the organization, its editorial team, or any of its partner organizations.