Updated at 10:05 p.m. ET on 2020-05-12
Phayaw Akkahad has spent the past decade seeking justice for her daughter, one of six people killed by sniper fire in Bangkok during one of Thailand’s bloodiest military crackdowns on pro-democracy demonstrators.
Kamonked, her 25-year-old daughter, was working as a volunteer for the Thai Red Cross amid protests that turned violent and rocked the Thai capital for many weeks 10 years ago. On May 19, 2010, the young woman was helping give medical aid to demonstrators who were hiding at Wat Pathum Wanaram, a Buddhist temple in downtown Bangkok, when she and five others were shot dead, allegedly by soldiers firing from an elevated train rail.
None of the shooters have been identified.
Now, a decade after about 100 people were killed during those street protests, Phayaw is among other relatives of victims, human rights advocates and pro-democracy activists who are calling on the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha to identify and bring to justice the people responsible for those deaths.
“Ten years on, we kept fighting for justice, bringing my daughter’s case to the court, and expected that the civilian government in 2011 could make it happen,” Phayaw told BenarNews. “But the  coup took place and the case was dropped.”
Last week, an unidentified group marked the 10th anniversary of the deadly violence and crackdown on pro-democracy protesters by lighting up the Defense Ministry building and the Monument of Democracy, the site where protesters were killed, with targeted messages. A laser projector spelled out “Searching for the Truth,” and “2010 Downtown Killing Field.”
Phayaw said she became agitated when a special police officer telephoned her late Monday night to ask if she was aware of the laser-based protests.
She first filed a criminal complaint in 2010 into her daughter’s killing, but said her fight for justice was in limbo because, as she described it, the military remains entrenched in power through Prayuth’s government.
Prayuth is a former army chief and former junta leader who led a coup in 2014 that toppled the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and many of the senior officials in his government are ex-military brass. Last year, Prayuth was re-installed as prime minister following the first general election since the 2014 coup, but critics said the electoral rules were re-engineered to favor the junta.
“Prayuth, his deputy PM and the minister of interior are all leaders of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), I have no hope in this government,” Phayaw said in a phone interview, using what was the official name for the junta, which governed Thailand from 2014 to 2019.
“But if we have an elected government, we will receive justice.”
While Prayuth now leads an elected government, security-related cases remain under the jurisdiction of the military courts.
Phayaw said she filed her criminal complaint through the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) against then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, his deputy, Suthep Thaugsuban, former Army Chief Gen. Anupong Paochinda (who now serves as minister of the interior), all commanding officers and the gunmen. She last met with DSI officials on Friday.
“I filed the complaint to the DSI, but its officers were later shuffled by the military junta who seized the power,” Phayaw said.
In a statement, the DSI said the case of Phayaw’s daughter was referred to the military court, adding that the military court was expected to inform her about its progress in the next week.
A defense ministry spokesman had little to say about the case or the 10th anniversary of the crackdown.
“In regard to the Army’s crackdown, I beg to not clarify because it is currently a judicial subject. It is at the court,” spokesman Lt. Gen. Kongcheep Tantrawanich told BenarNews by phone.
Months of protests
From March to May 19, 2010, thousands of people from rural regions set up camps in Bangkok’s business district to demand that Abhisit step down as prime minister.
The protesters built barricades made of bamboo poles, only to see security forces use armored personnel carriers to ram through them. Gunfire was heard and about 100 were killed and 2,000 injured.
The protesters, led by the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), a group of politicians and progressive figures – accused Abhisit of “stealing” democracy with help from the military by forcing a party aligned with Somchai Wongsawat, who was prime minister in 2008, to vote for Abhisit. In December of that year, parliament voted for Abhisit to lead the government.
In 2010, the Constitutional Court disbanded the Somchai-led People’s Power Party, ruling that it bought votes in 2008 general election. Somchai was a brother-in-law of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who like his sister Yingluck, was ousted in a coup and has since gone into exile.
In 2011, New York-based Human Right Watch (HRW) released a report saying the government had used unnecessary and excessive force against the demonstrators. It said nearly 100 people, including civilians and reporters, were killed, adding that an armed element called “Black Shirts” connected to the UDD had also caused deaths and injuries.
Black Shirts were armed members of the pro-democracy Red Shirt (pro-Shinawatra) protesters.
In 2017, the Supreme Court acquitted Abhisit and Suthep of murder charges, ruling the pair had performed their duties as government officials and therefore a civilian criminal court would have no jurisdiction over them.
Two years later in August 2019, a Thai court dismissed terrorism charges against 24 UDD leaders who were accused of arousing protesters to use violence, including arson of the city, during the course of the 2010 protest.
In a new statement on Tuesday, HRW said that the laser projections seen in Bangkok streets in recent days were “a sign of popular support for the demand for truth about the 2010 violence.”
“Sadly, the government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha, just like its predecessors, has no answers for those demanding justice for at least 98 people killed and more than 2,000 injured between April and May 2010,” Sunai Phasuk, a Thai senior HRW researcher, said in the statement.
He said the authorities had made “no serious investigations to prosecute government officials responsible for crimes,” while in stark contrast, protest leaders have since faced serious criminal charges.
“It is an underlining culture of impunity for government officials. They can’t be punished, no justice. Violence occurred repeatedly from October 1973, 1976, May 1992 and May 2010,” Sunai told BenarNews by phone, referring to past bloody crackdowns by the military.
CORRECTION: An earlier version misidentified Phayaw Akkahad.