Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Thai opposition politician Pracha Prasopdee, centre, leaves in a wheelchair after addressing a press conference at a hospital in Bangkok on May 12, 2011, two days after he was shot in the back in the outskirts of the Thai capital. (CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
Thai opposition politician Pracha Prasopdee, centre, leaves in a wheelchair after addressing a press conference at a hospital in Bangkok on May 12, 2011, two days after he was shot in the back in the outskirts of the Thai capital. (CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)

One year later

Thailand's high-stakes gamble after crackdown Add to ...

As bullets ricocheted through Bangkok's Wat Pathum Wanaram temple during the violent climax of Thailand's political crisis last spring, the woman known as Nurse Kate was just finishing treating one of the wounded when she saw another injured man lying near the entrance to the Buddhist temple.

Despite the firefight raging around her, the 25-year-old made her way to the new victim. Then, despite the green cross that was plain on her white vest, someone shot her dead.

More related to this story

The story of brave Nurse Kate, whose real name is Kamolkate Akkahad, is well known in Thailand. What isn't agreed on, however, is who shot her three times as she was tending to the wounded inside the supposed sanctuary of a Buddhist temple, where some 2,000 others had taken refuge from the violence of that day.

Was she gunned down by an army sniper, as much of the evidence suggests, during the operation to bring an end to two months of rolling demonstrations by Red Shirt anti-government protesters in the commercial heart of Bangkok? Or was she killed by rogue protesters, perhaps the infamous Black Shirts who battled the army with automatic weapons, in an effort to turn more people against the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva?

That such a question can still be asked speaks to the depth of the divide that persists in Thailand 12 months after the crackdown that left Nurse Kate and 90 others - most of them Red Shirt supporters - dead in the country's worst political violence in modern history.

If you're a supporter of Mr. Abhisit's government (and thus of the ruling establishment, which includes the country's military and monarchy), May 19, 2010, was the day the insanity of having the centre of Bangkok held hostage by the supporters of a fugitive politician was finally brought to an end.

If you're a Red Shirt (and thus likely a fan of the exiled former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra), there's no question Nurse Kate was shot dead by a soldier, one more victim of the effort by the country's elites to repress an uprising by the country's poor and disadvantaged.

Much riding on election

Which narrative will be written, at least temporarily, into the history books will depend on who wins the general election campaign Mr. Abhisit launched this week when he asked the country's King to dissolve parliament.

If Mr. Abhisit's Democrat Party returns to office, the only people likely to face trial are the leaders of the Red Shirt movement, some of whom are already in prison or temporarily free on bail. If the opposition Pheu Thai (which will reportedly be led by Mr. Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra) forms the next government, they're promising to prosecute Mr. Abhisit and others involved in ordering the May 19 crackdown.

Precisely because the stakes are so high, many worry that this country of 64 million people, Southeast Asia's second-largest economy, is heading into another period of turbulence.

"This could be the most violent election ever, both during the campaign and even after," said Surat Horachaikul, an assistant professor of political science at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

Both the Democrats and the Red Shirts bluntly warn that there could be a return to street violence if the other side takes power after the election.

The polls suggest Pheu Thai, the political wing of the Red Shirt movement, will win the largest number of votes, if not an outright majority in Thailand's 500-seat parliament on July 3. Despite a full-out push by the Democrats to win over the rural poor who form the backbone of the Red Shirt movement, the north and northeast of the country - where Mr. Thaksin is revered as the man who introduced cheap health care and rural development programs - remain firmly Red Shirt territory, as are poorer parts of Bangkok.

The Democrats, meanwhile, have strong support among the country's middle and upper classes, as well as in the south of the country, where the extrajudicial killings that marked the "war on drugs" campaign Mr. Thaksin launched while he was in office between 2001 and 2006 fuelled a renewed and deadly Muslim insurgency.

The election campaign - which saw an opposition candidate shot in the back just hours after the writ was dropped - seems unlikely to do anything more than deepen the chasm.

Exiled leader sparks passion

Just as in every election since 2001, and in much of the chaos since, the dispute is very much about Mr. Thaksin himself, who is arguably both the most loved and loathed man in the country. Pheu Thai's campaign slogan is direct and to the point: "Thaksin Thinks, Pheu Thai Does."

Single page

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular