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Thailand: 2 years after conflict, gunmen go unnamed

In wake of political violence, authorities choose amnesty over answers.

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Thai soldier walks past Thailand's biggest shopping mall - Central World - after it was set ablaze from anti-government protesters in Bangkok on May 21, 2010. (Pornchai Kittiwangsakul/AFP/Getty Images)

BANGKOK, Thailand — The anonymous phone calls began a month or two after Kamolket Akahad, a 25-year-old volunteer medic, was shot dead during a guns-blazing Thai army crackdown.

Bangkok was still reeling from its bloodiest political violence in decades: a series of April-May 2010 clashes pitting troops against the anti-establishment “Red Shirts” street movement. The crisis had recently wounded 2,000 and left 75 civilians and eight soldiers dead. But even then, Kamolket’s family had already started a crusade to identify and punish her killer.

Before long, they were attracting undue attention. “The caller’s gist was that he wanted us to give up,” said Natthaput, the slain medic’s 22-year-old little brother. “I told him ‘I can’t stop. I won’t stop ... we’re only going to up the pressure.'”

Subsequent calls, also anonymous, suggested pay offs in exchange for silence. “He asked, ‘Is there anything you want?’ I said, ‘Yeah, make me prime minister so I can fix this problem myself.’”

As relatives of the dead solemnly commemorate the protests’ two-year anniversary, there is little hope that their loved ones’ killers will ever face trial.

No soldier or official has been charged. The identities of armed commandoes within protest camps, who sometimes resisted troops with their own military-grade weapons, remain a mystery.

The mystery may go unsolved forever. A pending amnesty bill in parliament would absolve all officials, protesters, cops and troops implicated in the 2010 political violence.

The bill’s passage would continue a pattern in Thailand: explosive protests, harsh army crackdown and then amnesty all around. The latest round of protests recalls protesters challenging the Thai army’s grip on politics in 1976 and 1992. Both were sparked by popular anger towards coup plotters. Both ended in scores of civilian deaths.

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“This is a perpetual, generational cycle of impunity for people in power in this country,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “It gives a green light, particularly for people in uniform, to do this again next time. They’ll think, ‘Well, if I use violence against protesters, in the end I’m not going to face prosecution or arrest. I will be protected.’”

Thailand’s parliament has already agreed to pacify victims of the 2010 crisis with compensation: $246,000 for families of the dead, $143,000 to those handicapped by the violence and $7,150 to the injured.

But cash payments won’t cut it, Natthaput said. “We have sacrificed our loved ones ... but we can’t sacrifice the truth.”

In death, his sister has come to symbolize the tragic cost of over-the-top violence in crushing the 2010 protests. Cherub faced, and devoted to the Red Shirts, the young woman now popularly known as “Nurse Kate” was one of six shot dead at a Buddhist temple flanked by opulent malls.

As soldiers routed protesters from their downtown camp, an intersection encircled with razor wire and bamboo staves, the temple was assumed to be a safe zone.

It was not. Kamolket was shot multiple times while treating a wounded protester. Visual evidence and witness accounts, collected by Human Rights Watch and supported by a leaked police report, reveal the presence of soldiers on nearby train tracks at that time. The investigation remains incomplete.

The army denies responsibility. Kamolket’s family blames the military outright. They are not the only ones who have faced intimidation for noisily demanding answers. “We’ve been told that (other families) get significant pressure like ‘You should drop this. It’s not good. Leave it alone,’” Adams said.

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Natthaput claims to have endured worse than a few disturbing phone calls. Last year, while in a vehicle at night, he ducked at the sound of multiple gun shots, he said. When he dared to raise his head, Natthaput said, “I saw that shots had struck the car in front of me and grazed the side of my car.”

The government’s favoring of amnesty over investigations has some victims’ relatives losing hope altogether. “I don’t think anyone has forgotten the extreme losses from two years back,” said Khattiya Sawasdipol, a parliamentarian with Thailand’s ruling Pheu Thai party, in a speech excerpted in Bangkok’s Khao Sod newspaper.

She is the daughter of “Seh Daeng” — translation: red commander — a rogue general who flouted superiors, organized a militia to defend protesters and leant a militant streak to the movement. He was shot in the head by an unseen assailant while answering questions from a New York Times reporter on the street.

His killer has never been found. “I wish I could offer everyone confidence in this justice system,” Khattiya said. “But if no one is confident, I don’t know who we can trust other than ourselves.”

Yet another victim who has become famous in death, Col. Romklao Thuwatham, illuminates another facet of the protests: commandoes secretly operating among the Red Shirts. Photos and video from a 2010 army raid on a Red Shirt encampment supports claims that militants, sympathetic to protesters, fired an M-79 grenade that killed the colonel. That night, April 10, the two sides exchanged gunfire until 26 people -- five of them soldiers -- lay dead.

Though the colonel and Kamolket held different loyalties, their families are both agitating for the same result: legitimate investigations into every victim’s death. One year after Romkalo’s death, his widow, Nicha, told the Bangkok Post that “I must admit that I am scared. I am scared that violence will erupt and cause more losses again.”

According to Thailand’s Truth for Reconciliation Commission, set up in the uprising’s aftermath, the total death toll includes two cops, three journalists, five medics, eight soldiers and 75 citizens.

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Not all were actively involved in protests. A commission report detailing causes of death lists a taxi driver, shot dead while transporting a passenger; a man who took a stray bullet while watching clashes from a 27th-floor balcony; and a woman hit by errant bullets as she chatted with a neighbor.

The ruling party appears to favor an expansive amnesty that would leave all of these deaths unpunished.

This approach, on the surface, is counterintuitive. The current Thai Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected last year by the same broad, working-class voter base that make up the Red Shirts. She is the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, exiled godfather of the movement, which feeds on outrage over his 2006 army-led ouster.

But putting soldiers and their superiors on trial for killing protesters is perhaps seen as too bold for a new government mindful of the army’s penchant for coups.

Even Thaksin, whose movement inspired Nurse Kate to rally, is nudging the slain paramedic’s family to stop making waves. Kamolket’s mother “hasn’t released her anger towards the soldiers who shot her daughter and she doesn’t want amnesty. This is normal,” said Thaksin, according to the Thai-language outlet Neaw Na. “But we have to heed the greater good. The minority voice has to sacrifice.”

A recent study commissioned by Thailand’s parliament, and produced by the government-funded King Prajadhipok’s Institute, declared that authorities “should not name perpetrators” of protest violence and should become public only when “deemed appropriate according to the social and political context.”

Such a sweeping amnesty could potentially clear Thaksin of his own charges, which range from terrorism to corruption. His rivals, including Abhisit Vejjajiva, the ex-premier who oversaw the army crackdowns, are adamant that Thaksin return to Thailand and serve time in prison.

Thaksin has countered by attempting, through a hired legal team, to try Abhisit for “crimes against humanity” at international courts in the Netherlands. But the former premier is unrepentant. “There would have been no hostilities had there been no armed people” among the Red Shirts, Abhisit said in a late April forum with journalists.

Such back-and-forth accusations are a drain on society, Natthaput said. And they won’t bring his family -- or other victim’s families -- any closer to the closure they seek.

“To end violence in this country, the practice of just blaming the other side needs to stop,” he said. “Thai people are ready to live with the truth. Please give it to us.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/thailand/120518/red-shirts-protest-crackdown-amnesty-two-year-anniversary