Five years after Thailand's red shirt killings, wounds are still fresh

BANGKOK (AFP) - Five years after a bloody military crackdown on Thailand's pro-democracy "red shirts", relatives of those killed say unrepentant army rulers have failed in their promise to heal the country's deep divisions.

Ms Nongnai remembers the precise moment her younger brother died. The 38-year-old teacher was at work when the call came saying her sibling Attachai Anchalee had been struck by a soldier's bullet just above the heart.

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She listened as a friend described the desperate efforts of medics to stem the bleeding and keep her brother's heart going with chest compressions.

"I was on the phone for ten minutes... until he said my brother passed away," she told AFP from her home outside Bangkok, a picture of her brother on the mantelpiece. "He just stopped breathing."

Mr Attachai, a 28-year-old law graduate, was one of at least 90 people killed during the crackdown on anti-government protesters in April and May 2010.

He was among thousands of so-called red shirts loyal to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra who took over key intersections in central Bangkok that spring, demanding fresh elections to replace the pro-military appointed government.

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The massive protests brought to a boil years of resentment following a 2006 coup that toppled the democratically elected Thaksin, a move that led to his eventual self-exile overseas.

It was the bloodiest episode of Thailand's past decade of political drama, as soldiers flanked by armoured vehicles fought running battles with protesters, leaving the streets strewn with corpses and parts of the capital in flames.

The military's first response to the 2010 rallies came on April 10 when units tried to take a junction controlled by the Red Shirts.

Gun battles broke out between armed protesters and soldiers. By the end of the night more than 20 lay dead, including at least five soldiers and a foreign journalist.

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The more comprehensive crackdown that followed from May 13 to May 19 eventually succeeded in clearing the Red Shirts.

But scores were killed inside army-declared "live fire zones" including many unarmed demonstrators, another foreign journalist and two medical volunteers.

Observers and rights groups accuse authorities of using excessive force, killing unarmed civilians as well as armed elements among the protesters.

No soldiers have been convicted of any wrongdoing, although the two civilian leaders at the time are facing an abuse of power probe.

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Red shirts say the lack of convictions lays bare the impunity enjoyed by the military to intervene on behalf of the anti-democratic forces.

The army assault was overseen by a core of ultra-royalist senior officers with the backing of the civilian government. One of those officers, General Prayuth Chan-O-Cha, was later promoted to army chief.

Last year, he led another military coup, this time against the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra - Thaksin's sister - and now holds the dual role of junta leader and prime minister.

Bangkok's royalist elite and their supporters within the military, judiciary and in the south loathe the Shinawatras, but the family's populist policies have won deep loyalty among urban working class voters and farmers in the rural north.

The army insists it was forced to act against armed protesters in 2010, while Gen Prayuth has angrily rejected any suggestion his soldiers targeted civilians.

Observers say many red-shirt supporters equipped themselves with a range of weapons - from homemade catapults to fireworks and petrol bombs.

Other small groups of masked figures - dubbed "men in black" for their dark uniforms - were also seen among the crowds of red shirts toting automatic rifles and firing at soldiers throughout the clashes

Yet academics and rights groups who have studied the crackdown say soldiers made little attempt to differentiate between civilian protesters and their armed supporters.

"It was excessive use of force against protesters," says Professor Puangthong Pawakapan, a professor at Chulalongkorn University who has written a book about the crackdown.

"The idea was to destroy the red-shirt movement so that they couldn't come back," she says.

Of the 14 inquests carried out so far covering more than 20 deaths, nine found bullets from the military were to blame. In five inquests, the courts were undecided.

When Gen Prayuth took over last May - this time following mass demonstrations against Yingluck that were not quelled - he insisted reconciliation between Thailand's opposing camps would be a cornerstone of his administration.

But red-shirt supporters say they have seen little of that. Instead their leaders have been detained or silenced, while Yingluck has been banned from politics and is facing criminal negligence charges.

Relatives of those killed say healing the wounds that have torn Thai society apart remains a distant dream while the military stay in charge.

"We know the military are not neutral," said Nongnai, who asked AFP to use a pseudonym out of fear of reprisals.

Red shirts are also alive to the reality that those "who had their hands in the killings have today returned to rule the country", says Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai politics expert at Kyoto University in Japan.

Simmering with anger, the movement remains in lockdown. But relatives of the those killed remain defiant and say they are not finished yet.

As Ms Suriyan Pholsrila, whose husband Chanarong was gunned down on May 15, 2010, puts it: "Silence does not mean defeat."