Verdict in Abhisit murder case will raise a storm in Thailand

Pavin Chachavalpongpun says Thai red shirts will insist on accountability for 2010 crackdown

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2012, 2:53am

Thailand's former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy Suthep Thaugsuban have been charged with murder in connection with their role in a military crackdown against pro-Thaksin protesters in 2010.

The Department of Special Investigation's case centres around a taxi driver, Phan Khamkong, who was shot dead by the army in May 2010. The case could pave the way for the wider investigation into the use of violence by the Abhisit government. More than 90 people were killed in the unrest, most of them civilians.

The country has been struggling to come to terms with the loss of life and the slow process of bringing the culprits to justice. While politicians have called for a reconciliation so the country can move forward, possibly by forgiving and forgetting the events of 2010, the "red shirts" - largely supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - have continued to pressure the government over the killing of their friends and family.

If Abhisit were to be convicted, it would set a new precedent and could end the culture of impunity in Thailand. Political violence has occurred from time to time, but no one has ever been prosecuted for crimes against the people. Abhisit has said he would respect the decision of the court but continues to maintain his innocence.

But the department is also walking on eggshells. Many believe Abhisit may just have been a puppet of those who held the real power. Will the department be brave enough to also investigate the involvement of the current army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who played a role in ordering a deadly crackdown? Prayuth has forged close ties with the royal palace. Could this lead to a new phase of political conflict, potentially even more brutal?

Meanwhile, some analysts said that the charges against Abhisit were part of the government's tactic to compel the opposition to endorse legislation for a "blanket amnesty". The government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, had tried but failed to pass in parliament an amnesty law that could pave the way for Thaksin's return. Thaksin, who now lives abroad, was convicted in absentia for corruption.

Now that Abhisit stands a chance of being imprisoned as well, his party may wish to reconsider its opposing stance. The amnesty bill, if approved, could also free Abhisit if he were convicted. But it also means that justice would be sacrificed. Any deals that would close the tragic chapter without anyone being prosecuted would certainly infuriate the red shirts, and may drive them back onto the streets of Bangkok.

Clearly, the charges against Abhisit are the start of another interesting political episode.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies