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Thailand's high-stakes gamble after crackdown

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.


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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

As divisive as the events of last May is the bloodless 2006 coup that saw the army drive Mr. Thaksin - the only Thai politician ever to win back-to-back majorities - into exile. The constitution was rewritten while the country was under military rule, and Mr. Thaksin was convicted in absentia of corruption.

If the Red Shirts win, they're promising to throw out that constitution and write a new, more "democratic" one. The movement's leaders also say a Pheu Thai government would grant Mr. Thaksin an amnesty that would allow him to return to Thailand.

"If they go along that line, at some point it's difficult to tell the difference between the Red Shirt movement and an armed terrorist movement," said Buranaj Smutharaks, spokesman for the Democrat Party. He warned "the entire cycle of conflict" would begin again if the Red Shirts won power and proceeded to carry out their provocative election promises.

Which is why so many Thais - on both sides of the political spectrum - expect the Red Shirts will be kept out of power, no matter what the election results are. If the Red Shirts fall even a few seats short of a majority, it's expected that Mr. Abhisit will be able to cobble together a governing coalition, just as he did in 2008 after the courts forced another pro-Thaksin government from office.

And if the Red Shirts do form the next government, many believe the military might move to again seize power. Coup rumours kicked into overdrive late last month when satellite television stations cut out for three hours, a scare eventually blamed on a technical glitch. Though the Thai army has repeatedly promised in recent months that it will stay out of politics, it also gave such guarantees before some of the 18 coups it has carried out over the past seven decades.

If the Red Shirts win the vote, but are again kept out of government, the movement's leaders warn the backlash could be hard to control.

"If Pheu Thai wins the majority of the vote, please, please, please respect the will of the people," said Weng Tojirakarn, a senior Red Shirt, in an interview in the waiting room of Bangkok Remand Prison. He is currently free on bail after spending six months in jail on "terrorism" charges stemming from last year's protests.

"If they don't, I don't know what will happen to Thailand. Maybe chaos, maybe anarchy, maybe more bloodshed. I don't wish it, but I don't know."

Accounts of shooting vary

Among those who were in the Wat Pathum temple last May 19, there's little doubt over who was shooting at them. Those trapped inside the supposed sanctuary (including myself) were certain that the shooting was coming from above, from the tracks of the Bangkok Skytrain, which photos and video later showed was occupied at the time by military snipers.

"Soldiers," is the one-word answer Payao Akkahad gives when asked who killed her daughter while she was treating patients at Wat Pathum.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch recently released a report on last year's violence that was critical of both sides, but saved its harshest words for the government, pointing to "excessive" and "unnecessary" use of lethal force during the crackdown. The group concluded that shots fired by soldiers on the Skytrain tracks had killed Nurse Kate and at least three of the other five who were found dead inside the temple.

The military angrily disputes that account, saying it was rogue elements of the Red Shirts who fired at their own people. "The suggestion flies in the face of the eyewitness accounts, physical evidence and forensic investigations carried out at the scene of the events," Human Rights Watch concluded.

Neither side seems interested in hearing the other's version of the events of May 19, researchers say, which has made national reconciliation impossible.

"There's been little or no progress on reconciliation. Both sides are as entrenched in their positions as ever," said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch. "If anything the polarization has deepened."

Ms. Akkahad was back in Wat Pathum temple this week, wiping at her eyes as she relived the details of her daughter's death. Though she says she wasn't politically active before May 19, she now works for the Red Shirts and sports a red vest emblazoned with a photo of Mr. Thaksin.

"This isn't about Thaksin. We're fighting for democracy," she insisted as she looked up at the overhead tacks, the perch from which she believes a soldier took aim at, and then repeatedly shot her daughter.

"I don't really care who wins the election. But the next government must take responsibility for what happened here."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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