Two years on, still no justice
Two years have passed. For me it is as if everything happened only yesterday. Like so many of my colleagues I was out in the streets of Bangkok day and night, witnessing events which marked the worst political violence in Thailand for eighteen years.
It was a hot and sunny day in mid-March 2010 when the movement of the Red Shirts, the "United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship" (UDD), began its mass protests in Bangkok against the government of then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. I recalled the joyful atmosphere among the protesters from whom a lot of had travelled to Bangkok from the North and Northeast. The Red Shirts were opposing the military coup of September 2006 which ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They were also demanding the dissolution of parliament and fresh elections. But the UDD-led demonstrations which started peacefully ended up in violent clashes with the Thai military. Several inner parts of the capital became battlefields during April and May 2010. According to official figures at least 102 people were killed and about 2000 were injured. Among the dead were unarmed protesters, medical volunteers, soldiers and foreign journalists.
Foto: Holger Grafen, First anniversary of the April 10th crackdown
In a recently released short film at the Bangkok "Foreign Correspondents Club", produced for "Human Rights Watch" (HRW) by our colleagues Roger Arnold and Bradley Cox, victims and their families from both sides recall the events of 2010 and demand justice. They also explained that the failure to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the violence and abuses would lead to a circle of violence and impunity in Thailand, HRW pointed out at this press conference.
It was on 10th April 2010 when Santipong Injan, nicknamed "Bird", was badly injured. The military has been ordered to disperse the Red Shirt demonstrators who had occupied some inner parts of Bangkok. The day ended up as a fiasco. "Soldiers on the frontline used only shields and batons, but the ones at the back were firing shots at protesters", "Bird" was quoted in the documentary. When he was fleeing from the teargas, he washed his face and by looking up he was shot in the face by a rubber bullet.
Foto: Holger Grafen, Burning barricades in the heart of Bangkok on 17th May 2010
By trying to disperse the Red Shirt protesters the Thai army came under attack itself by Red Shirt militants (to describe those militants the term Black Shirts was widely used) who were highly trained and acted like military men. While doing research on the Red Shirt militants a UDD-protester later told me that those militants had been soldiers as well, fighting alongside the UDD against their own comrades in the Thai army.
Among the dead on that April 10th were not only UDD-protesters and a Japanese cameraman but soldiers also. Colonel Romklao Thuwatham, a high ranking army officer and a rising star within the Thai military, was killed when grenades were fired at his unit. Like all the others who lost their loved ones his widow Nicha is demanding justice and the truth to be told. "I insist that before I forgive, people must admit their guilt with sincerity and promise not to harm or kill innocent people again", she was quoted in the HRW-short film.
In the following weeks the street violence escalated. I witnessed grenade attacks, shooting and abuses for which both sides were responsible. It became more and more obvious that the Thai military would start a final crackdown on the Red Shirts soon. This assault began at dawn on the 19th May 2010, when the army was breaking up the UDD-encampment in the business district at Ratchaprasong intersection and surrounding areas while Red Shirt militants were fighting back. These moments belong to the darkest hours in Thailand´s recent history.
Foto: Holger Grafen: Soldiers were firing rubber bullets and live ammunition
Among those who were murdered that day was Kamolkate "Kate" Akkahad, a young volunteer nurse. At the time she was shot Kate was tending to the injured at Wat Pathum Wanaram near Ratchaprasong, a Buddhist temple declared by all parties as a sanctuary in case of a crackdown. However, people inside Wat Pathum weren´t safe at all. Several witnesses saw soldiers stationed on the tracks of the Skytrain opposite to the Wat Pathum entrance, firing shots into the temple grounds. "Kate was shot while she was trying to help other people", her mother Phayao Akkahad, who I met several times, told me. Phayao demanded that those responsible for the death of her daughter should be brought to justice. She wouldn´t stop asking questions until she learned the truth, she said. Other reports revealed that there was also firing from Red Shirt militants towards the soldiers on the Skytrain tracks.
During a Red Shirt mass rally on 19th September 2010, marking four years after the military coup and four months after the 19th May crackdown, I met Santipong Injan ("Bird") personally, who told me about his fate. On that fatal April 10th he was shot in the face by a soldier who used rubber bullets and therefore he lost his right eye. Although badly injured he would never give up fighting for justice and democracy in Thailand, he said.
A "Truth for Reconciliation Commission" was established in 2010 by the government of then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. However, impunity and injustice still prevail in Thai society. The former government charged UDD-leaders and supporters with terrorism (among other things), but neither soldiers nor government officials had been charged or arrested. This has not changed under the Yingluck government. "Despite well-documented atrocities that took place in the full view of cameras and witnesses, no Thai soldier or official has been held accountable", said Brad Adams, Asia Director at "Human Rights Watch", stressing the fact, that there had been abuses committed by both sides. "The military should not be above the law. The government needs to prosecute all those responsible for crimes, whatever their political affiliation or official position, to provide justice for the victims and end the cycle of violence and impunity."
Foto: Holger Grafen, Soldiers with arrested protesters on 19th May 2010
Now, two years on, the victims of the violence and their families have to face the bitter fact, that there will be probably no justice being delivered at all. It seems that the ruling Puea Thai party under Thaksin´s sister Yingluck, elected in a landslide victory in July 2011 by massive support of the Red Shirts, is just too busy with supporting a national reconciliation law to be enacted and a blanket amnesty to be granted to perpetrators who broke the law for engaging in the violence committed by several parties during Thailand´s political crisis since the coup 2006.
Critics said this bill was - among other things - designed to facilitate the return of Yinglucks brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by the military in September 2006. Despite the fact that many in the Red Shirt movement are still Thaksin-supporters several of them showed their disapproval of the proposed amnesty. Some people were telling me in recent weeks that the truth of what had happened in 2010 should be told first, otherwise all those people would have died in vain.
The principle of impunity is, sadly enough, nothing new in Thai history: The country experienced several mass uprisings and bloody military crackdowns like in 1973, 1976 or 1992. Usually those who were responsible for committing atrocities had never been held accountable for their crimes.
Foto: Holger Grafen, Street Theatre Red Shirt supporters mourn the victims of violence in 2010
Several victims and their families, among them the late Kate´s mother Phayao and her brother Natthapat, pointed out very clearly that they would not be willing to accept reconciliation on the condition that truth has to be sacrificed. "There have been sayings that the victims and their families should bring sacrifices; we have sacrificed our loved ones, some have sacrificed their limbs, others their freedom, but we cannot sacrifice the truth and we cannot sacrifice justice", Natthapat Akkahad told the audience at the Foreign Correspondents Club.
"Regarding the reconciliation and amnesty I disagree with that", Natthapat said. "As for myself and others who are affected by the violence we believe that for reconciliation to happen truth must be told. Truth is the first thing to come out before reconciliation to happen, not amnesty." Though they welcomed the government´s decision to compensate the victims and their families, a financial compensation would not be sufficient, they said, and that they do not want to be "bought off". Natthapat also said that he wished to see an end to the division in Thai society: "To end division in the country the practise of blaming the other side, blaming your opponents must come to an end."