Thailand fails to find closure on Bangkok massacre

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 16, 2013

Over three years after the deadly military crackdown on the anti-government red shirt protests, battling narratives on what happened that day are still defining the current political climate – even more so with the debate on the government-sponsored amnesty bills and the release of an official inquiry report that fundamentally contradicts with recent court rulings.

On May 19, 2010, after nine-and-a-half weeks of anti-government protests and street occupations by the red shirts, the military staged a bloody crackdown. With the previous clashes since April 2010, at least 90 people were killed and thousands injured, mostly civilians. The chaos and carnage has left a gaping wound in the nation’s psyche that still hasn’t healed. Not least because the questions surrounding  what exactly happened and who is responsible for the deaths are still the subject of intense argument across all political allegiances, mostly with little facts and much hyperbole.

Last year, the Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT) released their final inquiry report into the events of May 19, 2010. The panel, set up during the administration of then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva with virtually no powers or access, found faults on both sides and was promptly criticized and dismissed by both sides.

Last week, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) released its own report in what they think happened in the crackdown:

The report, around 90 pages long, can be summed up in 2 points: that the security forces did commit several inappropriate actions – such as dropping teargas from the helicopters onto the crowd below and censoring a number of websites – but the bigger issue is that it was the Redshirts who “violated human rights” by engaging in unlawful protests and provoking the authorities.

The Redshirts under the leadership of the National United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the report said, violated the laws by organising a protest at Ratchaprasong Intersection, the heart of Bangkok′s financial district. The move equals to provoking violence, according to NHRC. Therefore, the NHRC said, it is entirely lawful that Mr. Abhisit formed up the Centre for Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES) and declared emergency laws. (…)

The casualties during the crackdowns in April and May 2010 were results of clashes between the security forces and shadowy armed militants allegedly allied to the protesters, according the report. (…)

Even the deaths of 6 civilians at Wat Pathumwanararm Temple, declared as ′safe zone′ for fleeing protesters by the authorities, were described as a consequence of alleged gunfights between the militants and the soldiers near the temple – (…)

NHRC Accused Of Whitewashing Authorities’ Hands In 2010 Crackdown“, Khao Sod English, August 10, 2013

The NHRC report fails to point the finger of blame at the military for the deaths, which Abhisit and his then-deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban are now facing murder charges by the DSI. Especially foggy are the circumstances, in which six civilians were killed inside Wat Pathumwan, that are described by the NHRC inquiry (“killed outside and then dragged inside the temple grounds”). In fact, they were disproved in a landmark court ruling just a few days earlier that explicitly found the military responsible for the deaths – which was instantly rejected by army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, back then one of the key commanders of the crackdown.

Expectedly, the NHRC report was met with heavy criticism with accusations of whitewashing the crackdown, since it also seems to be reinforcing the same official line that has been touted by the authorities and the Abhisit government back then in 2010 and is still insisted upon today by the now-opposition Democrat Party and its supporters. Given the political affiliations the NHRC head Amara Pongsapich and the circumstances that led to her appointment, the report is hardly a surprise, but a disgrace to the National Human Rights Commission’s task.

The May 19 crackdown was also a central issue of the parliamentary vote of the so-called amnesty bill last week. From the various draft bills that have been suggested (including one by families of the Wat Pathum victims strangely supported by Abhisit), the government led by the Pheu Thai Party (PT) submitted the draft of PT MP Wocharai Hema, that grants all political protesters amnesty – including the various yellow and red shirt protests since the 2006 military coup – but does not include the protest leaders and authorities responsible for the crackdown. The bill was initially passed by the lower House, but has to vetted and submitted for vote again.

The heated exchanges during the debates saw both political sides occupying their narratives to the events of the violent clashes during the red shirt protests of 2010. One such moment included Democrat MP and former deputy PM Suthep insisted that no snipers were deployed in the dispersal, despite secret documents stating the contrary.

On Thursday, the Bangkok Post published a column by Democrat deputy leader Korn Chatikavanij voicing his opposition to the amnesty bill, accusing the government for a lack of “any genuine desire for reform or reconciliation” and points to the TRCT panel that was set up by then-PM Abhisit (but gave it virtually no powers whatsoever), cites the “objections from the UN human rights office” (although the UN OHCHR only cautioned and then clarified it didn’t object the bill at all) and (mistakenly?) references the NHRC as “our own Human Rights Watch”, while during the Abhisit government he and his government regularly blasted the findings by HRW and other international human rights organizations.

What all these events in the past week show is that the wounds of what is considerably the worst political violence in the Thailand’s recent history still have not healed, because not only are competing truths evidence of an ongoing divided political discourse, but also the very likelihood of repeated impunity for the authorities and the military for the May 19 crackdown still prevails, something that has been practised too often in the country’s history – 1973, 1976, 1992, 2006, just to name a few – in the short-sighted hope that all is forgotten and forgiven until the next tragedy.

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