BANGKOK– Abhisit Vejjajiva looks set to be the first leader in Thai history who will face a murder charge, in relation to the death of a taxi driver during the red-shirt protest in May 2010. To say that the case is controversial is an understatement. The naming of Abhisit and former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban as suspects is highly contentious. And so is the Department of Special Investigation’s role in seeking “justice” for the victim.
Some may regard Abhisit as being responsible for Mr Phan Khamkong’s death, while others will view the move to charge the former PM as politically motivated. Either way, Abhisit’s case will set a precedent for Thai political history. Investigators, police and public prosecutors now have to pursue the case in earnest to enable Thais to come to terms with the violence in April and May 2010, which is essential for people to properly understand what occurred so the country can move on.
The Department of Special Investigation (DSI) charged Abhisit, in his capacity as prime minister, and Suthep, the deputy prime minister, and accused them of being responsible for the death of Phan, who was shot dead by military personnel during operations to contain rioting, according to DSI chief Tarit Pengdith.
This is a landmark case as it is the first time a prime minister has been accused of being accountable for a death during the suppression of a political rally. There have been many other casualties during efforts to contain previous political protests but Thailand has never seen big-name political players held legally accountable for such actions.
Abhisit, as national leader, certainly faces questions over his accountability. But so do others in regard to the death of 91 people killed during the political violence in mid-2010. Whether you agree or disagree with the charges against Abhisit, given the various factors involved, a fair and transparent trial is the most sensible way to proceed.
To ensure a fair trial of the case, the hearing must involve truthful records of the situation. Evidence uncovered during the investigation into this death indicate that prior to the suppression operation, Abhisit and Suthep allowed the military to use lethal weapons as well as snipers against protesters and rioters. Before that, there were attempts by the government to negotiate and end the mass rally in a peaceful manner. Events leading to the crackdown order must be seriously and honestly reviewed.
Abhisit was known to be attempting to negotiate for a political truce. For instance, he offered to dissolve the parliament in exchange for peaceful dispersal of the red-shirt protesters who camped out in the centre of Bangkok. But his offer was rejected by the red-shirt leaders. At that time, Abhisit, the PM, was under pressure to act as the red-shirts had paralysed the capital for weeks and there had already been about two dozen deaths.
The fateful dramas that followed were complicated by factors such as the authorities’ lack of training to manage protests, especially when crowds turn violent and use weapons against state officials. There is evidence of arms being used by both sides.
Abhisit’s case should set a precedent that leaders can be held responsible for people’s deaths and will be accountable. The same could apply for Somchai Wongsawat, his predecessor who ordered police to disperse yellow-shirt non-violent protesters in October 2008 – a crackdown that resulted in many injuries and the death of two non-violent protesters.
The trial should seek to establish if Abhisit was solely accountable for Phan’s death. The trial should take into account all incidents including protest leaders’ responses to his offer to allow an election if they peacefully dispersed, as well as how they conducted themselves on the rally stage. It should seek to reveal whether hard-line leaders of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship tried their utmost to avoid the tragic events that transpired in May 2010.
In April 2009, red-shirt leaders staged a rowdy protest in Pattaya that forced international leaders to flee and the East Asian Summit to be cancelled. Shortly after, an angry mob attacked Abhisit’s car in an incident many say was a real threat to his life. The authorities, at that time, used rubber bullets against the protesters to stop a potentially dangerous rally in Bangkok. Dozens were injured but there were no reports of deaths and the crowd was dispersed.
But in April 2010 it became obvious that opponents of the Abhisit government were armed and violent. There was evidence of “black shirt” attackers, who were accused of killing troops seeking to disperse red-shirt protesters from Khok Wua Intersection.
If Abhisit is guilty, he must be punished. “Forgetting” this trauma is not a solution for the country to move forward. Now that this historic charge has been launched, the DSI and the relevant agencies have to pursue the case in earnest to bring justice for all.
For reconciliation can probably only really begin once the truth is revealed and the justice of these events is properly weighed.