KYOTO – Last week the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) decided to press murder charges against former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy Suthep Thaugsuban in connection with their role in a military crackdown against anti-government red-shirt protesters during April and May of 2010.
Abhisit has now officially become the first Thai prime minister ever to have been charged for crimes against the people.
The DSI’s case centers on taxi driver Phan Khamkong, who was shot dead by the army in May 2010. The case will pave the way for a wider investigation of Abhisit government violence. More than 90 people were killed in the unrest and more than 2,000 injured, most of them civilians.
The country has been struggling to come to terms with the loss of life and the slow process of bringing the culprits to justice. While politicians have called for a reconciliation so that the country can move forward, possibly by forgiving and forgetting the events of 2010, the “red shirts” — largely supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — have continued to pressure the government over the killing of their friends and family members.
If Abhisit were to be convicted, it would set a new precedent and could end the culture of impunity in Thailand. Political violence has occurred from time to time — such as in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010 — but no one has ever been prosecuted before. Abhisit has said he would respect the decision of the court but firmly maintains his innocence.
During his recent visit to the United Kingdom, Abhisit was invited to the BBC to discuss the charges laid against him. He hoped to exploit the opportunity to whitewash his involvement in the crackdown. He failed.
Abhisit was unable to answer hard questions such as whether he instructed the use of live bullets and whether he, as prime minister at the time, should be held accountable for the death of protesters.
During the interview, Abhisit came across as overly confident and somewhat aggressive. He put all the blame on the mysterious “men in black” who were supposedly among the red-shirt protesters. Abhisit unconvincingly said these men attacked the security forces as well as the red shirts so as to discredit his government. However, until today, not a single “man in black” has been arrested. Many wonder if they exist only in Abhisit’s imagination.
Abhisit went on to elaborate that the protesters incited violence by throwing grenades at soldiers, who were told to act in self-defense only. But Abhisit’s statement contradicted many pieces of evidence turned up in the course of the investigation as well as the statements of several eyewitnesses and foreign journalists. Those killed were apparently unarmed and wore red shirts. Most of them were shot in the head, evidently by snipers.
Abhisit told the BBC that no other prime ministers in the world would have had to take responsibility for the violence provoked by demonstrators. His denial of any responsibility shocked the BBC as much as viewers at home.
Abhisit came to power in late 2008 following the dissolution of the pro-Thaksin party. Instead of calling for a fresh election, Abhisit’s Democrat Party, despite being a minority in Parliament, set up a new government through a backroom deal brokered by the military. But his term as prime minister was tainted by countless protests staged by the red shirts, who saw his assumption of power as having cheated the electoral system.
As the red shirts set out to remove the Abhisit regime through mass protests in the heart of Bangkok, Abhisit ordered the crackdown, clearly with the support of the Thai Army. Now, the question is whether the DSI will also probe to what extent the military became involved in the deadly operations.
In so doing, the DSI will be walking on eggshells. Many believe Abhisit may just have been a puppet of those who held the real power in Thailand. Will the DSI be brave enough to also investigate the involvement of the current army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who played a role in the crackdown? Prayuth has forged close ties with the royal palace. Could this lead to a new phase of political conflict, potentially even more brutal?
Meanwhile, some analysts say the charges against Abhisit were part of the government’s tactic to compel the opposition to endorse legislation for a “blanket amnesty.” The government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, tried but failed to get Parliament to pass an amnesty law that could pave the way for Thaksin’s return. Thaksin, who now lives abroad, was convicted in absentia and sentenced to two years in prison for corruption.
Now that Abhisit stands a chance of being imprisoned as well, his party may wish to reconsider its opposition. The amnesty bill, if approved, could set him free if he were convicted. But it also means that justice would be sacrificed.
Any deals that closed this tragic chapter without leading to the prosecution of anyone would certainly infuriate the red shirts, and might drive them back onto the streets of Bangkok.
Possibly the charges against Abhisit may kick-start another critical episode in Thai politics, the episode in which Thais witness the renewed game of political revenge and its impact on the upcoming royal transition.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.