Former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said soldiers acted in self-defense when setting up live-fire zones around a protest site in 2010 as he fights murder charges over a crackdown that killed more than 90 people.
“It was clear that the military never took aggressive action,” Abhisit said yesterday in an interview. “We didn’t even allow them to go in to disperse the protests in the main protest site. All they were doing was setting up barriers to cordon off the protests. And these checkpoints were being attacked, and they were defending themselves.”
Thai authorities last month charged Abhisit and a deputy for authorizing soldiers to use weapons against protesters backed by former leader Thaksin Shinawatra who wanted immediate elections in May 2010. Yingluck Shinawatra led her party to victory in a vote 14 months later, the fifth straight win for allies of her brother Thaksin and the seventh loss in a row for Abhisit’s Democrat party dating back to 1992.
In the final week of the 2010 demonstrations, Abhisit set up live-fire zones on the perimeter of the downtown Bangkok protest site. While the army stated that soldiers could only shoot militants with weapons in hand or in self-defense as a last resort, Human Rights Watch said that in practice the rules were ignored and snipers targeted unarmed protesters.
Video footage shows unarmed demonstrators and journalists under fire in the zones. At least 34 protesters and two soldiers were killed during that week, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a 2011 report.
The charges against Abhisit came after a court ruled in September that soldiers shot and killed a taxi driver on May 14, 2010, the same day his government authorized the live-fire zones. The death appeared “almost like an accident,” and it remained to be proven whether the other fatalities were caused by indiscriminate shooting, Abhisit said in an interview with Bloomberg Television in Singapore.
Courts have said government forces killed protesters in four of five cases considered so far, and have yet to decide on a further 30 cases, according to Tharit Pengdit, head of the Department of Special Investigation, which brought the charges.
The DSI, an agency under the Justice Ministry, has charged leaders of the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts with terrorism and initiated cases against about 300 rank-and-file members for crimes such as arson. The murder charges against Abhisit and former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban are the first against government leaders.
“Both sides are guilty in different contexts,” Tharit said by phone. “There will be more cases on the government side as there are a high number of deaths and injuries. The delay in bringing charges is because authorities needed to get a court ruling first.”
Abhisit has dismissed the case as political retribution and said he’d sue the DSI for violating the law in bringing the charges. An emergency decree in place during the protests provides him immunity if the actions were not discriminatory or disproportionate, he said, adding that a court confirmed that armed people were among the protesters.
Abhisit said he made “a very good choice in terms of my duty to restore order” after he negotiated with demonstrators and they rejected his offer for November elections. “I’m willing to face the charges and fight and prove my innocence in court. And I will respect the verdict,” he said.
Abhisit’s moves to discredit the DSI will only help the Red Shirts bring him before the International Criminal Court, according to Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer for Thaksin and the group. Abhisit is confident he’ll be acquitted in a Thai court because the judiciary is biased against Thaksin, Amsterdam said.
“The more he attacks the DSI, the more he gives me ammunition to go to the ICC and say Thailand’s not capable of doing this,” Amsterdam said. “Me and Abhisit are seeing it the same way. We both know he won’t get justice in Thailand.”
While government forces were responsible for most of the deaths and injuries, heavily armed elements among the protesters also should be prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said in September. Red Shirt leader Tida Tawornseth denied the group had any connection with the armed men seen in video footage, saying they were either a rival military faction or members of the army who infiltrated the group to make them appear violent.
“They said all the time that we’re the bad guys, burning the buildings, but now everything changed,” Tida said. “It’s a very good thing for Thai society to wake up and to change the idea of who is the bad guy.”
Abhisit took power in a 2008 parliamentary vote after judges used the post-coup constitution to disband the ruling party composed of Thaksin’s allies. Protesters then blocked parts of Bangkok to pressure Abhisit to call elections, prompting him to invoke emergency powers to detain opponents, close media outlets and use soldiers to disperse crowds.
Since Yingluck took power, Abhisit has sought to block her party from overhauling a constitution written after the military ousted Thaksin in a 2006 coup and passing a broad amnesty that may bring him back from exile. Street protests since the coup have killed more than 100 people as Abhisit’s party and groups linked to the military and palace have resisted moves to grant more power to elected politicians.