Fri, May 20, 2011 - Page 5 News List

ANALYSIS: One year after protests, Thais still divided


Cradling a framed portrait of her slain daughter, Payao Akkhahad approached a soldier outside a barracks in this vast Asian metropolis and delivered a letter asking for something her bereaved family feels it never got — justice.

Her only daughter, Kamolkate, was working as a volunteer nurse when gunmen fired into a Buddhist temple complex that was supposed to be a safe haven. She was killed on May 19 last year — the final day of militant anti-government “Red Shirt” demonstrations that paralyzed the capital and spawned some of Thailand’s bloodiest violence in decades.

New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch says the shooting was most likely carried out by soldiers, as does a preliminary report by the government’s Department of Special Investigations (DSI) — Thailand’s equivalent of the FBI.

However, one year later, nobody has been charged in Kamolkate’s death. Cases like this — and the fact that only government opponents have so far faced prosecution — have strengthened a sense that justice in Thailand is one-sided, a malleable tool favoring the Bangkok-based elite over the powerless, mostly rural poor.

“The army killed innocent people, yet one year later there have been no apologies,” the 46-year-old Payao said, referring to the military crackdown that crushed the two-month protest and claimed her 25-year-old daughter’s life.

“You should take responsibility for what you’ve done,” Payao told a black-uniformed soldier outside the barracks, where she believes the troops who shot her daughter are based. “If there is no justice, I’m afraid people will have to die again.”

Clutching a walkie-talkie, the soldier nodded respectfully, then bowed and walked away without saying a word.

Though life in cosmopolitan Bangkok returned to normal long ago, the societal divide between the haves and have-nots that transformed its streets into a battleground last year remains wide. Some fear the rift could spark new violence as the country heads toward elections on July 3.

The vote will be fiercely contested, and closely watched by an anxious military that has staged 18 coups over the last century, the latest in 2006 against former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, whose sister was named this week to head the main opposition party.

Rights groups blame both sides for stoking the crisis, which killed at least 90 people and wounded 2,000 between April and May last year. During those months, more than 100,000 demonstrators, mainly from the countryside, camped out in the financial district and brought the city of steep high-rises to its knees — occupying major roads and shutting down international hotels and shopping malls.

Opposition leaders had urged their supporters to turn Bangkok into a “sea of fire” — something many tried to do in widespread arson attacks after armored military vehicles finally moved in to disperse the crowds. Among the protesters were shadowy black-shirted militants armed with grenade launchers, pistols and automatic weapons.

The government says it proceeded carefully to minimize casualties as it tried to restore order, setting several deadlines for protesters to disperse.

However, rights groups say it used disproportionate and excessive force — including live ammunition and snipers.

Since then, “nobody on the government side has been held accountable,” Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams said. “We’ve said to the government over and over again: ‘If you really want to heal, you need to hold some of your officials accountable.’”

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