Another battle over the truth is being fought in Thailand.
Robert Amsterdam, the international lawyer working for fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has submitted a lengthy petition to the International Criminal Court in the Hague alleging that Thailand’s government and military committed crimes against humanity during the suppression of “Red Shirt” mass protests in Bangkok in April and May last year. The document produced by Amsterdam & Peroff LLP goes far beyond just setting out the evidence of criminal conduct. It presents an alternative history of the past decade in Thailand that is radically at odds with the official narrative, and which has been made available online in both English and Thai, as a challenge to the government’s version of the truth. Central to its argument is the incendiary accusation that the official version of events is not merely dishonest or incomplete, but that it has been constructed with the help of a prolonged campaign of systematic and deliberate deception, with key events staged or manipulated to obscure the truth of what was really going on and create a carefully choreographed fiction.
It remains unclear whether the International Criminal Court has any jurisdiction over events in Thailand. The country was a signatory to the Rome Statute that created the court, but never ratified it, and so the government has been confidently predicting that Amsterdam’s efforts would be a waste of time. The revelation that Abhisit may hold British citizenship as a result of being born in Newcastle and that this may make him answerable to the court was an unwelcome shock for the government, but even if it turns out to be true that Abhisit never formally renounced his British nationality, few expect the ICC to swing into action. But that was never really the point: Thaksin’s aim is to challenge the legitimacy of Thailand’s government, and undermining the official version of the truth could achieve that whether or not the ICC takes up the case.
So what really happened in Bangkok during the tragic and tumultuous months of April and May 2010? Even while the clashes were still raging, a furious struggle had already started to define the truth about what we were witnessing. Many supporters of the Thai government accused the international media of grossly misrepresenting Thailand’s crisis, insisting that footage of soldiers firing on protesters failed to capture the complexities of the situation, and offering their own versions of the truth about Thailand. Months later, we are no nearer to an informed consensus about what took place.
There are some facts upon which everybody can agree. In mid-March 2010, “Red Shirt” protesters supporting the United Front For Democracy against Dictatorship began gathering in Thailand’s capital for mass protests they hoped would topple the coalition government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. It was the latest flashpoint in a bitter conflict that has polarised Thailand for years. The protesters congregated in the historic districts around Rachadamnoen Avenue near Thailand’s parliament where many past political battles have been fought; over coming days and weeks many thousands set up camp there and many thousands more joined them for colourful rallies around the city. On April 7, the government declared a state of emergency and the following day, a crackdown began – the military forced the Red Shirt television channel off the air, leading to clashes around the Thaicom satellite station in Pathum Thani to the north of the capital. On April 10, violence erupted after the military launched an operation to clear the protesters out of the Rachadamnoen area in Bangkok. At least 25 people were killed: five soldiers including Colonel Romklao Thuwatham, a rising military star and deputy chief of staff of the Second Infantry Division (Queen’s Guard), and 20 civilians including my colleague Hiro Muramoto, a Reuters cameraman from Japan who was shot dead as he filmed the unrest. The violence on April 10 did not end the red shirt campaign – the protesters abandoned the battle-scarred Rachadamnoen area but consolidated their hold on the Ratchaprasong intersection, an area of five star hotels and luxury malls in the heart of the capital, where they built a vast fortified encampment. Mysterious armed men, usually dressed in black, acted as guards in the camp; they were clearly there with the knowledge and permission of the red leadership. On April 22, a grenade attack in the Silom business district killed one person and wounded scores, and on April 28, in chaotic clashes on a highway in northern Bangkok, soldiers fired live rounds at charging protesters; one soldier was killed, shot apparently by accident. In early May, in a televised address, Abhisit offered a “peace roadmap”, proposing elections on November 14 and reforms to address social injustice among other concessions if the protesters ended their occupation. The Red Shirt leadership initially appeared receptive to the plan, but over coming days came up with further demands and clarifications; many in Thailand’s royalist “Yellow Shirt” movement were outraged at the proposed concessions and accused Abhisit of caving in to mob rule. On May 8, a drive-by shooting in the Silom area killed two policemen. On May 12, Abhisit withdrew his proposed concessions, saying the reds had failed to grasp the opportunity of a peaceful resolution. On May 13, Major General Khattiya Sawasdipol, a renegade army general who had allied himself with the red movement and was known by his nickname Seh Daeng (Commander Red), was shot in the head by a sniper as he spoke to a New York Times journalist in the encampment; he died in hospital a few days later. Violence spiralled as soldiers tightened their grip on areas around the red encampment; frequent gunfire and explosions rang out in several areas of downtown Bangkok and plumes of smoke from burning barricades darkened the sky. On May 19, around dawn, troops breached the barricades of the red encampment and scattered the protesters. Most of the Red Shirt leadership surrendered to police. In the chaotic hours that followed, dozens of buildings were targeted by arson attacks, including the Central World mall which was destroyed by fire. Beside the mall, gunfire killed six people inside the grounds of Wat Pathum Wanaram, a temple which had been designated as a safe haven and where hundreds of people were sheltering. The final death toll from two months of unrest was at least 91, with more than 1,800 wounded.
The official narrative of events is that Thaksin Shinawatra and the Red Shirt leadership are terrorists who paid thousands of ignorant impoverished Thais to occupy the streets of Bangkok in order to paralyse the city, hold the government to ransom and secure the return of billions of dollars of assets seized from the former telecoms tycoon. They were also part of a complex conspiracy to overthrow Thailand’s revered monarchy. The black-clad gunmen among them were under orders to create mayhem, and to terrorise civilians. Thailand’s government and military showed admirable restraint for weeks, but faced with the intolerable occupation of a central district of the nation’s capital city, they eventually moved in to restore order. Soldiers were careful to use non-lethal crowd control measures wherever possible and behaved appropriately, but the terrorists fired indiscriminately on troops and civilians alike. The Red Shirts then went on an arson rampage, further undermining their claim to be a peaceful protest movement. In the official narrative, not only was the military fighting to defend Thailand from terrorists, but soldiers were not responsible for any of the civilian deaths and casualties. “I can categorically deny that the army has killed or hurt any Red Shirts or protesters, including the Japanese journalist,” military spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd insists. “Killing those persons would bring us no benefit whatsoever.”
It is quite clear to any objective observer that this official narrative contains some obvious untruths. The most egregious is the claim that Thailand’s military was not responsible for a single civilian death or injury in April and May 2010. Abundant video footage is available on the internet showing Thai soldiers firing live ammunition directly at civilians, not to mention compelling eyewitness testimony from ordinary Thais and from foreign reporters; this detailed account by photojournalist Nick Nostitz of events on May 15 is a particularly powerful example. And besides this accumulated evidence, one episode in particular serves to undermine the official version of events: the killing of six Thai civilians including three medical workers in Wat Pathum Wanaram temple on the evening of May 19 after the military had overrun the red encampment at Ratchaprasong.
A wealth of eyewitness testimony, as well as photographic and video evidence has established beyond any reasonable doubt that soldiers from the 3rd Special Warfare regiment based in Lopburi, positioned on the elevated Skytrain railway tracks overlooking the temple, fired into the grounds of Wat Pathum Wanaram and were responsible for the six deaths. The combined testimony of dozens of witnesses including Red Shirts sheltering in the temple, paramedics treating the wounded, and at least three foreign journalists at Wat Pathum – Andrew Buncombe of the Independent, Mark McKinnon of Canada’s Globe and Mail and Australian photojournalist Steve Tickner – describes how panicked civilians came under fire from camouflaged men who could be seen on the elevated railway. An investigation by Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation which was leaked to Reuters in December concluded that at least three of the dead were killed by special forces soldiers on the Skytrain track and contains plentiful evidence that the soldiers killed all six – the victims were all killed by high-velocity bullets and fragments of the distinctive green-tipped M855 bullet used by the special forces troops were found in four of the six corpses. The report also contains the testimony of several named special forces soldiers who admitted firing from the Skytrain tracks although they denied deliberately targeting civilians. The document was also obtained by journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk at the Nation and posted online with names redacted on the Prachatai news website. Leaked DSI investigations have also shown that despite the agency’s close links with powerful government politicians it has concluded that troops were also probably responsible for several other deaths, including Hiro Muramoto of Reuters.
The killings at the temple were a key focus of a confidence debate in parliament two weeks later in which opposition politician and Red Shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan declared:
What happened at Wat Pathum cannot be ignored. You can’t hide the sky with your palm. The truth must come out.
Abhisit and Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban rejected any responsibility. Since the killings took place, Suthep and senior military commanders have repeatedly and specifically insisted that no soldiers were positioned on the Skytrain tracks, and no soldiers fired into the temple. Asked in December about the leaked DSI report which directly contradicts these assurances, Abhisit has declared that it was premature to “jump to conclusions”.
Had the government and military argued that soldiers had no choice but to fire upon protesters as they battled armed elements within the Red Shirts during the violence, and that some civilians were killed and wounded as a result, this would have been accepted by many Thais and foreign observers – even in the case of the killings at Wat Pathum, where multiple Thai and foreign witnesses insisted there was no sign of anybody within the grounds who was armed and posed a threat to soldiers. But the assertion that the military was not responsible for any of the casualties is not only unsustainable, it casts doubt over all other elements of the official narrative.
The alternative history of April and May 2010 produced by Amsterdam and his team contends that it was never the intention of Thailand’s government and military to seek a peaceful end to the Red Shirt protest. Instead, they implemented a secret strategy of using provocation and deception to make the Red Shirts appear to be violent and dangerous, and create the pretext for the movement to be brutally crushed:
The Thai Establishment, aware that the supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin would rise up in protest against the suppression of democratic principles, adopted a policy to suppress any such protests through military force, with the ultimate objective of destroying the movement for democracy. Part of this policy involved a high-stakes public relations strategy to create the false impression that the Red Shirts were violent and should be suppressed at all cost. This strategy included: (1) the destruction and/or manipulation of evidence that incriminated the Army and the Thai Government; (2) the planting of “evidence” to incriminate the Red Shirts; (3) the surreptitious use of weaponry, including snipers and explosive devices, in such a way as to create the false appearance that the Red Shirts were responsible for violence; and (4) media propaganda designed to create the false appearance that the Red Shirts were violent, dangerous and a threat to the Monarchy.
Among specific allegations, the petition to the International Criminal Court says that the military crackdown on April 10 was not designed to clear protesters from the Rachadamnoen area with minimal force – instead, the aim was to compress the crowd into a confined space and then use deliberate provocation and sniper fire to incite violence from the red shirts, as a pretext to respond with lethal force so that key Red Shirt leaders could be assassinated and the movement’s followers intimidated into giving up their struggle. It says the grenade blast that killed Colonel Romklao and four other soldiers that evening was not an attack by armed elements within the Red Shirts – it was an inside job by professional soldiers in the army, either to create a pretext for the subsequent crackdown or because of internecine divisions in the military due to resentment over the favoured status of the Queen’s Guard. It says this operation failed partly because some soldiers refused to open fire on or drive their armoured vehicles over fellow Thais. The report alleges that the military concluded that in their next attempt to decisively crack down on the protesters, they would have to prevent any evidence emerging of soldiers firing on and killing civilians. This was the reason why journalists and medical workers suffered disproportionate casualties in May – soldiers had unwritten orders to shoot them on sight within the battle space. Following the storming of the red encampment, the report says, the military was responsible for setting the Central World mall ablaze in a plan agreed in advance with the government and the building’s owners to discredit the Red Shirt movement.
To the many Thais who remain deeply distrustful of the motives of Thaksin Shinawatra (my blog post “Thaksin and me” gives my views) these accusations sound outlandish, an attempt to absolve the former prime minister of any blame for the violence and a crude but elaborate bid to smear Abhisit and the military. Thaksin’s sudden conversion to the merits of democracy, human rights and respect for the rule of law strikes many as hollow, and it seems unlikely that his role in April and May was entirely benign and that he would have hesitated to use any means he deemed necessary to advance his agenda. The petition glosses over the undeniable presence of armed elements among the Red Shirts, claiming they were military-sponsored provocateurs or agents. But this cannot be the whole story, and it does not explain the role of Seh Daeng and his militia. Amsterdam himself acknowledges that his job is not to produce an objective account of the events of April and May 2010 but to compile as much evidence as possible that the government and military committed crimes against humanity. But like the military’s insistence that it did not harm a single protester, the attempt to absolve Thaksin and the red movement of any involvement in violence undermines the credibility of the rest of the narrative. Most of those involved in the red movement may have been committed to peaceful protest, but certainly not all of them.
Yet the petition musters an impressive amount of detail in support of its allegations. Its account of the violence in April and May is coherent and internally consistent and offers a possible explanation for some of the mysteries of the conflict, such as the disproportionate casualties among journalists and medical workers. And the claim that key events in the upheaval were staged by the military is not as far-fetched as it may seem. In May 1998 I was in Jakarta when autocratic President Suharto was forced from power during an eruption of violence in the Indonesian capital. After four student protesters were shot dead during a rally, crowds of rioters took to the streets, setting several shopping malls and businesses ablaze. Mysterious snipers were perched atop tall buildings, their affiliation and allegiance unclear. It slowly began to emerge in the months that followed that much of what had appeared to be spontaneous mass unrest had been planned and assisted by elements in the Indonesian military, hoping to create instability which they could then exploit. The students had been shot by a sniper with the deliberate aim of unleashing chaos; to help that chaos along, the military trucked hired thugs posing as protesters to strategic parts of the city, and helped them burn down shopping malls. Events spiralled out of the control of those who sought to stage-manage the situation – chaos, unsurprisingly, tends to be hard to control – and Indonesia began a transition to democratic rule that was never the intention of those who had deliberately fanned the flames of unrest. Watching the confrontation unfold in Bangkok in 2010, I was often struck by the echoes of Jakarta 12 years before.
But even for those prepared to look at Amsterdam’s allegations objectively, it remains difficult to separate likely truth from probable fiction. The report uncovers no indisputable smoking gun and delivers no knock-out blow. It builds its case mainly through the testimony of mostly anonymous witnesses, and two of the most detailed and interesting witness statements – “Anonymous Witness No. 20″ and “Anonymous Witness No. 22″ – are in fact created from the testimony of multiple sources to create a “composite witness”:
These witnesses spoke with us at length, and they provided their testimony anonymously because of the grave danger they would face if their identities were discovered. Consequently, we merged their various testimonies into a single statement to make it more difficult for the Thai authorities to identify them.
This strategy also means, however, that these apparently compelling witness statements are in fact less than the sum of their parts. We cannot form a meaningful opinion about the overall credibility of the testimony from the cumulative weight of detail and evidence it contains, because it has been compiled from multiple sources of possibly varying reliability. The petition also includes interesting expert opinion from retired Master Sergeant Joe Ray Witty, a former U.S. special forces soldier, in support of the claims that the military was seeking to murder and intimidate Red Shirt protesters rather than disperse them with a minimum of force, and that Colonel Romklao was murdered in an attack by the military from behind army lines rather than by “terrorists” among the red shirts. But it only takes a little familiarity with courtroom dramas to know that expert opinion can be found to prove almost anything, regardless of whether it is true.
So where does this leave those of us who want to know the truth about what happened in Thailand last year? Do we have to conclude that we can never know, that the truth lies somewhere between two competing partial narratives, neither of which is fully convincing, and both of which have been constructed to protect the interests of powerful figures who have little regard for honesty?
That has been the fate of all previous efforts to establish the truth about the darkest chapters in modern Thai history. As David Streckfuss notes in his magisterial study Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason and Lèse Majesté:
There has yet to be any sustained attempt to deal with any significant historical event that led to death, bloodshed or impunity over the last half century: whether it is the treatment of the Muslim population in the south of Thailand and the Tak Bai incident; the repression of the Sarit regime; the deaths in the run-up to, and during, the 1973 uprising; the massacre at Thammasat University in 1976; the crackdown on the May 1992 uprising; the extra-judicial killing of more than 2,500 drug dealers during Thaksin’s time in power; the 2006 coup; or the 2008 and 2009 PAD/UDD demonstrations.
As a result, he says, “whole swaths of Thai history are lost”. His description of the military’s official report on the Black May 1992 violence could equally be applied to the official narrative of 2010:
No blood, no shootings, no orders, no death appear in the military’s report on the 1992 uprising. All that happened was the movement of dark forces, gangs, factions, rumours, behind the scenes manoeuvring, and the prompting of masses on the streets to march toward their own suppression.
Thongchai Winichakul, now a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and visiting fellow at the National University of Singapore, was one of the “October 1976 generation” of student activists and was detained for two years following the Thammasat massacre. In a letter written 20 years later to students planning to commemorate the victims, he laments the readiness of Thai society to forget its most traumatic times:
It’s as if it never happened, or as if its only value was to teach people how to forget.
But what is the cost to Thailand of failing to confront the truth? If those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, then the perpetual political Groundhog Day that Thailand appears trapped in becomes easier to understand. To quote Streckfuss again:
The cycle in Thailand has become so familiar it seems normal: a coup is staged, the constitution is abolished, coup makers grant themselves an amnesty, a new constitution is drafted, new elections are held, the newly-elected government is perceived as increasingly corrupt, a crisis ensues; the next coup is staged, and so on.
Investigation and acknowledgment of the truth is essential if Thailand is to break out of the cycle and move forward. Hopes for genuine reconciliation can never be realised when there is no accounting of past confrontation and trauma. The conflict is never resolved, just ignored, until it flares again.
If Thailand wants to start taking the truth seriously, the events of April and May 2010 would be a good place to start.
It might seem to be a lost cause. Can we really uncover the truth when even the most basic parameters are so vehemently disputed and when so many powerful figures are determined to bury the real history of what happened and replace it with their own self-serving narratives?
The answer is yes, we can.
Technological change has comprehensively destroyed the ability of even the most powerful organisations to control the flow of information and impose their version of history. Ordinary people now have an unprecedented ability to access a wealth of information, evaluate it, and contribute their own information to a conversation that can reclaim the truth from those who seek to distort or suppress it.
If enough ordinary Thais agree that whatever their political views or affiliations, it would be in the interests of their country to establish the truth about April and May 2010, then the opportunity is in their hands. Even if the government and military do their best to prevent the truth from emerging, and even if most domestic media organisations do little or nothing to help, the real story of Thailand’s political crisis can still be uncovered by a community of ordinary citizens working together through social media in a collective effort of crowdsourced investigation.
The uncovering of the truth about the killings at Wat Pathum Wanaram on May 19 last year illustrates what can be achieved. What follows is my summary of some other incidents that merit further investigation to determine the real history of last year’s violent confrontations.
1. WHO STARTED THE FIRE THAT DESTROYED CENTRAL WORLD?
The wave of arson attacks in Bangkok on May 19 following the military storming of the Red encampment and Ratchaprasong is widely assumed to have been the work of elements within the Red Shirt movement, and to have been planned in advance. Speeches available on YouTube show Red Shirt leaders Nattawut Saikua and Arisman Pongruangrong apparently threatening to set Bangkok ablaze. An enraged British supporter of the Red Shirts, Jeff Savage, was also captured on camera on May 19 vowing to loot the mall and burn it to the ground. The arson attacks played a huge role in turning many formerly sympathetic Thais against the Red Shirt movement.
Arisman, one of the few Red Shirt leaders to escape arrest and go into hiding, has since told journalist Andrew Spooner in an interview that his threat was intended only as a symbolic warning to the military:
The purpose of my speech was to attempt to dissuade the army from either attacking us or staging a coup. If there was a coup I wanted the army to be warned that people might fight back by using petrol against heavily armed troops. That they wouldn’t just be able to just kill us. I don’t regret giving this speech because I wasn’t provoking people to burn down the city for no reason but only as a defensive action because the Red Shirts had no arms.
Asked by Spooner whether the burning of Central World was justified, Arisman insisted the Red Shirts were not to blame:
The Red Shirts didn’t burn down Central World. It was a government action in order to justify the shooting of the Red Shirts. Most of the places where the fires were set were already under government control when they were started. There were no Red Shirts there. The army started the fires.
Savage, meanwhile, told Richard Lloyd Parry of the Times that he had nothing to do with the arson attack on Central World:
I’m ashamed that I lost my temper… I was tired and emotional and full of steroids. I said we’re going to burn down Central — I was being sarcastic.
The ICC petition compiled by Amsterdam and Peroff LLP also alleges the Central World blaze was started by the military as part of a premeditated plan to discredit the Red Shirt movement. The “Anonymous Witness No. 22″ statement compiled from the testimony of several military officers says:
By 17:00 hours, the Army had fully secured all of the Central World buildings. All civilians were removed from the buildings, including numerous security guards who worked at Central World. After the civilians were removed, soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Battalion were posted outside Central World to prevent anyone from approaching or entering. The purpose of this exercise was to permit a team of arsonists contracted by the Army to plant incendiary devices inside Central World. These devices were intentionally ignited at approximately 17:45 hours, destroying the Zen store building. The operation was planned by the Army Leadership, with the consent and approval of the Government Leadership, several weeks in advance of May 19. The purpose of the operation was to cement in the public mind the concept that the Red Shirt movement was violent and dangerous, which the Government Leadership and the Army Leadership believed would create the impression that the Army’s actions in suppressing the Red Shirts were justified. In fact, the Red Shirts had nothing to do with the fires that destroyed part of the Central World complex.
The petition also contains detailed testimony from “Anonymous Witness No. 1″, a foreign resident of Bangkok who witnessed the fire that destroyed Central World from their apartment’s bedroom window. This witness makes two key assertions. Firstly, that troops secured the area around the mall well before the fire took hold:
Beginning at approximately 17:00 on May 19, 2010, I witnessed numerous Army troops in front of the Central World building on Rajdamri Rd. Their demeanor was casual. They were on foot, not supported by vehicles, nor were they taking cover from any threat. They were carrying a full range of weaponry, including the Israeli Tavor 21, several Remington 12 gauge shotguns, together with Barretta 9mm handguns. At this time, the status of the minor fire was relatively light.
Secondly, the witness says, after the military had secured the mall, the fire that destroyed the building bore the hallmarks of being started by professionals:
It was clear to me… that this fire was deliberately set from the inside by someone with knowledge of incendiary devices and fire dynamics, intending to inflict maximum damage to the building structure.
An eyewitness account in the Asia Times Online, run by Thaksin’ friend-turned-arch-enemy Sondhi Limthongkul, also notes the professionalism of the arsonists:
To be sure, there are questions about who commanded the UDD’s black-shirted and often heavily armed guards. The number of them who actively attacked Rajaprasong’s retail canyon on May 19 was small, perhaps less than 50, according to this correspondent’s on-the-ground assessment. Many worked in small teams of half a dozen and they remained on a clear mission even after explosions and gunfire cleared the immediate area of the main protest stage.
This correspondent saw one or two teams make a concerted attempt to bring down the huge Central World. Explosions could be heard inside the structure in the mid-afternoon of May 19 and police investigators say black-shirted arsonists, some of whom were also opportunistic looters, were caught by security cameras going about their destructive work.
One key point is that the arsonists are highly unlikely to have been “opportunistic looters”. Burning down a modern building is not an easy thing to do. It seems very probable that the destruction of Central World was carefully planned and executed. But this in itself does not answer the question of whether it was done by elements within the Red Shirt movement who wanted to create chaos, or by groups working with the military to discredit the Reds. The issue of whether the military had already secured the mall before it was destroyed is absolutely central. And one group of people who would be in a position to help solve the mystery are the security guards working at the mall that day.
In December, a set of 74 photographs appeared on Facebook taken inside and around the mall on May 19 and afterwards. The DSI later conceded that the photographs were also in its investigation files; they appear to have been leaked to Red Shirt leader Jatuporn among others. An excellent analysis of the photographs by an anonymous source has also been circulated online, and says the photographs all appear to have been taken by a mall security official:
The photographer is almost certainly security personnel at CTW [Central World]. If it is true, as I believe, that the photos all came from the same camera, then our photographer is present both among a group of plain-clothes mall security guards who are shot at by unseen gunmen, and also during a post-fire inspection of CTW. The most logical link between these two scenarios is that he is a mall security guard.
The photographs do not allow a definitive conclusion to be drawn about who was in control of the mall when the blaze that destroyed it was started:
The photos do not really answer this question at all, though they do indicate there were armed persons inside the mall. We see photographic evidence that security guards were shot on Level 3, and that the shooters aimed primarily for the legs. Based on those photographs we can speculate that shooters were firing from the direction of Zone A, which is now closed down due to fire damage, and which suffered a partial collapse. We also see less clear evidence that a man, possible a protester or a looter, was shot in the leg on Level 1.
We can conclude that there was at least one shooter or group of shooters inside CTW, but to conclude anything more would be to go beyond what the current evidence shows. The people with guns inside CTW could have been one of a number of groups, with the two most obvious possibilities being the Thai military and the so-called Men In Black, an armed militia group believed to be associated with the Red Shirts.
Photographs 12 to 28 in the sequence show Central World security guards appearing to start preparations to fight a fire, and then some of them being wounded by unknown gunmen:
The Facebook captions claim the men were shot with shotguns. The photos appear to corroborate this.
Later photographs appear to have been taken after the photographer had fled the mall and was in the vicinity of Wat Pathum Wanaram. The analysis notes that photograph 41 is particularly interesting because it shows a man in camouflage gear in the elevated Skytrain station at Siam. This further corroborates the account of witnesses at the temple who came under fire from armed men on the Skytrain tracks.
The conclusions of the analysis of the photograph sequence are worth quoting in full:
The photographs show that were at least three groups of people inside CTW in the hours just before the fire: (1) small numbers of protesters, who may have been looting; (2) CTW security guards, who apparently fled the mall after being fired at; and (3) unseen gunmen. Whether there was more than one group of gunmen, and whether the same gunmen shot the security guards in Photos 15-28 and the protester with the slingshot in Photo 9 (if he was indeed shot), we simply do not know based on these photographs.
The photographs also show at least three different sources of apparent gunfire: (1) unseen shooter(s) inside CTW, who fired upon security guards and possibly fired at a protester; (2) unseen shooter(s) located near the northeast corner of Siam Paragon; and (3) unseen shooter(s) on the west side of Siam Paragon, possibly connected to the camouflaged man in the ski mask photographed on the Siam BTS platform.
As discussed above, the photographer was almost certainly a security guard for CTW. This raises an important question: Have the security guards from inside the mall been questioned as to what they saw at CTW before the fire? Many faces can be clearly seen. No doubt they saw more than was photographed here. Will any journalists step up and track down these witnesses?
Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd made a response to these photographs on behalf of CRES this past Tuesday, December 7th. (See the Matichon report.) He dismissed the photographs, saying they contain nothing new.
And while these photographs do not provide us with any ground shaking new conclusions about the Central World fire, their release and the ongoing public response is striking, because it demonstrates how little information the public actually has about what happened. More than six months later we’re still guessing, still bickering about who did what.
The government’s dismissal of this new evidence out of hand, and their refusal to acknowledge and respond to a public clearly hungry for more information, simply demonstrates their ongoing dedication to a policy of strict opacity, and a lack of responsibility towards informing the public they are supposed to serve.
As the anonymous commentator states, many faces can be identified in these photographs. These crucial witnesses must be tracked down and asked about what they saw and experienced during the chaotic afternoon and evening of May 19. Who are they, what do they know, and what can they tell us? Their testimony will be critical to establishing the truth.
Given the video evidence of Red Shirt leaders and supporters vowing arson attacks, plus the fact that applying Occam’s Razor should lead us to assume the simplest explanation unless we see evidence to the contrary, the onus remains on the Red Shirts to demonstrate that it was not elements within their own movement who started the Central World fire. But there is enough doubt over the issue – particularly in light of what we now know about events beside the mall at Wat Pathum Wanaram – to make the Central World fire a crucial test case of the competing narratives about May 19.
2. DID THE MILITARY COVER UP THE KILLING OF RED SHIRT PROTESTERS IN BANGKOK IN APRIL 2009?
On April 13 2009, after Red Shirt protesters stormed an ASEAN summit in Pattaya and forced panicked regional leaders to evacuate by helicopter in a severe embarrassment to Abhisit’s government, the military launched a pre-dawn crackdown on Red Shirts who had massed in Bangkok around Government House. The Red shirts have claimed ever since that at least six protesters were killed in the military operation and their bodies taken away by troops. The Amsterdam & Peroff report says sources in the military have confirmed this. “Anonymous Witness Statement No. 22″ says:
At approximately midnight on April 12, The Army withdrew troops of the 1st and 9th Infantry Divisions who had been occupying the Ding Dang area east of the Government House, and replaced them with troops of the 2nd Infantry Division under direct control of Maj. General Walit Rojanapakdi, who was to carry out the suppression operation.
General Walit was given four basic orders in connection with the operation: (a) to complete the suppression before daylight on April 13; (b) to leave no bodies or injured behind; (c) to leave no traces of blood or other incriminating evidence; and (d) to prevent any reporters from witnessing the operations. These orders came from General Prayut Chan O‐cha, with the approval of Prime Minister Abhisit. It was clear to me from these orders that the purpose and intent of the military operation was to kill civilians, and that General Prayuth, his superiors in the Royal Thai Army, and the decision‐makers within the Thai Government, including Prime Minister Abhisit, were aware that the operation would involve killing innocent civilians as a part of implementing their overarching policy to suppress and eliminate the Red Shirt movement…
General Prayuth assigned Colonel Romklao Thuwatham to lead the 2nd Infantry Division’s suppression operation on the ground.
A unit from the Army’s 1st Infantry Division was assigned the task of retrieving any bodies and removing them from the area. They were also assigned the task of taking prisoners. These troops, with assistance from the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration used water trucks to hose down the area to remove any traces of blood. The 1st Infantry Division removed at least six bodies of Red Shirt demonstrators.
Following the events of April 2009, officials within the Army and the Thai Government falsely reported to the media in Thailand that no Red shirt demonstrators had been killed by the Army. Similar statements were made by Colonel Romklao and others to official parliamentary investigative commissions held later in 2009. These statements, however, were false. The 2nd Infantry Division was responsible for killing at least six and wounding more than 100 people during the suppression operation in April 2009.
This is another accusation that can be explicitly proven or shown to be false. If six people were killed by the military on April 13 2009, there must be people who know who they were – their families, their friends, their comrades who were at the scene when they were killed, the soldiers who removed their corpses.
Shortly after the April 13 clashes, the bodies of two men were found in the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok. Nattapong Pongdee, 23, from Udon Thani, and Chaiyaporn Kantang, 29, from Phrae, both worked as security guards for Krung Thai General Business Services in Lat Phrao, a Bangkok suburb. Both corpses had been gagged with white cloth and their hands bound with blue nylon rope. A Bangkok Post report on the incident says:
The doctors who joined the police team concluded from initial examinations of the bodies at the scene that the two had suffered head and facial injuries and had drowned, meaning that they were both still alive when they were thrown in the river.
Police were quoted as saying neither man had any interest in politics. This is contradicted by photographs showing Chaiyaporn wearing a Red Shirt top and headband.
Who killed these men and were their deaths connected to the April 13 violence? Some commentators have stated that the death of six people would have been impossible to conceal given the presence of the international media. However, the crackdown began before dawn, and Reuters journalists were among the first media to arrive on the scene – some time after the military had moved in. Reuters staff did not witness any fatalities, but do not consider it impossible that fatalities occurred early in the morning before a large number of journalists arrived on the scene.
A blog post by freelance photojournalist Jon Le Fevre quotes an unidentified head monk at a Bangkok temple as saying he witnessed people being shot by the military, loaded into trucks and taken away.
3. WHO WAS BEHIND THE GRENADE ATTACK IN SILOM ON APRIL 22 2010, AND WHAT PROMPTED THE EVACUATION OF CHULALONGKORN HOSPITAL?
On April 22 last year several M79 grenades were fired at the Sala Daeng Skytrain station in Bangkok’s business district, killing one woman and wounding scores of people. An Al Jazeera report on the attack is here (initial reports suggested three people had been killed).
Shortly after the blasts, military loudspeakers in the area were already saying the Red Shirts were behind it. Within hours, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep told television reporters that the grenades had been fired from the direction of Lumpini Park, held by the Red Shirts. Bangkok Deputy Governor Thirachon Manomaipibul said CCTV footage from the Skytrain station confirmed the grenades had been launched from Lumpini.
Yet most witnesses, including many Thai soldiers in the area, were convinced the grenades had been fired from a tall building overlooking Silom Road, most probably the 5th floor of Chulalongkorn Hospital. Bangkok Governor Sukhumband Paripatra also said the attack had been launched from a tall place. And it quickly became clear that it would have been impossible for the grenades to have been fired from Lumpini – there were too many obstacles in the way. The CCTV footage cited by Thirachon has never been released, and considerable doubt surrounds whether it existed at all.
The Silom area had been the scene of confrontations over the previous few days, with groups of so-called “Multi-Coloured Shirt” protesters assembling to confront the Reds. This group claimed to be independent and to support neither the Reds nor the Yellows (they feature in my previous blog post “Uneducate People”); but while it was clear they drew some support from local people who’d had enough of the disruption of the protests, the Multi-Coloured Shirts were organised by key Yellow leaders, and were among several such pressure groups of dubious authenticity that sprang up at this time – the Pink Shirts and the No-Colour shirts were others. An artificial atmosphere surrounded their protests.
A week later, on April 29, a group of Red Shirt protesters demanded entry to the hospital to check whether soldiers or snipers were inside. Some were armed with wooden staves. Other Red Shirt leaders quickly apologised for the intrusion. But the hospital declared that the Red Shirt raid showed that it was no longer safe for patients or staff in the hospital, and ordered an evacuation. This was quickly seized on by pro-government Thai media who portrayed it as further evidence of that the Reds were dangerous and uncivilised. This story from the state-run National News Bureau of Thailand is typical; after a headline that states “4 patients died from Chulalongkorn Hospital evacuation”, the story later adds:
According to Public Health Minister Jurin Laksanavisit, a total of 196 patients were temporarily transferred from Chulalongkorn Hospital to 49 other hospitals following the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD)’s raid of the hospital. The minister reported that three transferred patients had died from cancer and another died from obesity, heart disease and renal failure.
Former Bangkok Post editor Veera Prateepchaikul wrote in a feverish editorial:
Starting out as a self-proclaimed champion for democracy and against double-standard practices since launching their protest just a few months ago, the red shirt movement has increasingly shown its true colours as a big bully which will stop at nothing, even if that means putting the lives of the weak and the sick in grave danger. The storming of Chulalongkorn Hospital on Thursday by more than 100 red shirt guards under the leadership of Payap Panket, a core leader of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), in a frantic search for suspected army snipers was the most deplorable and brazen act by the movement so far. It may well be the last straw in the tolerance of most of the public towards the red shirt protesters…
Somrat Charulaksananan, deputy director of Chulalongkorn Hospital, described the incident as the worst in the hospital’s 96 years of operations. He said the hospital’s sanctity as a sanctuary for the sick had never been breached so badly before, even during World War II when Thailand was occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army.
An insightful analysis by Thongchai Winichakul notes the symbolism of the hospital raid and subsequent evacuation:
The media reports, especially on TV, are full of horrible eyewitness accounts. Doctors, nurses, patients, and their relatives are panicked. They frantically moved patients, many of whom are in a serious condition and should not be moved, to another building. What is shown on TV is not an orderly operation as precaution but a chaotic, disorganized action by medical personnel who were in fright! The Reds are coming! They heard the Reds are coming! People said the Reds are coming! …
The media, academic, civic groups, and the Facebook community condemned the Red invasion strongly in chorus. Their condemnations are much louder and incomparable to their mild criticism, if not silence, to the government uses of force and live ammunition that resulted in twenty-five deaths on April 10. The invaded body of the clean moral politics represented by the hospital seems to have higher value than the deaths of the Reds. This reinforces the earlier message that the deaths of army officers who commanded the violent crackdown on April 10 were of higher value than the Red victims of the same crackdown.
Serious questions remain over whether the evacuation was necessary. Senior doctors at Chulalongkorn Hospital had long shown themselves to be sympathetic to the Yellow movement – they even went as far as breaking the Hippocratic Oath in 2008 when they refused to treat police wounded in clashes with Yellow Shirt protesters. And doubts quickly emerged over the official story. This New Mandala post has an alternative account of events, and a large number of eyewitness accounts also suggest that in late April and May troops were indeed stationed inside the hospital and snipers were positioned on the roof.
One of the military sources behind the “Anonymous Witness No. 22″ statement in the Amsterdam and Peroff report alleges the whole hospital evacuation was a stunt to turn public opinion against the Red Shirts:
Another example of this high‐stakes form of negative public relations strategy involved the evacuation of Chulalongkorn Hospital in Bangkok on April 30, 2010. It was widely reported that the evacuation was prompted by an invasion of Red Shirt demonstrators searching for snipers. In fact, the incident was planned in advance by the Government Leadership and the Army Leadership, in collusion with certain members of the Thai media and certain members of the board of Chulalongkorn Hospital. After members of the press challenged Red Shirt leaders to back up their claims that Army snipers had fired shots from atop the hospital, hospital management immediately ordered the evacuation. There was never any genuine belief that the Red Shirt leaders presented a threat, and the orders to evacuate were given in order to heighten tensions and reinforce the false impression that the Red Shirts were violent and a threat to the Monarchy.
Taken together, the events in Silom in late April 2010 generate a number of questions worthy of further investigation. Where are the investigations into the M79 blasts and has the place the grenades were fired from been identified? Who ordered the hospital evacuation and when? What were patients and their families told? Was the evacuation necessary when there appeared no serious threat from the Red Shirts? Was there a coordinated effort to use the incident to discredit the Red Shirts with the assistance of the Thai media?
4. ARE THE DSI AND POLICE MAKING A GENUINE EFFORT TO INVESTIGATE THE DEATHS?
In response to leaked DSI reports on the deaths in April and May, Abhisit has repeatedly said that the investigations need to be completed before conclusions are drawn:
The prime minister is still reluctant to accept that security forces could have played a role in killing civilians during the street clashes in April and May.
Abhisit Vejjajiva yesterday suggested that it is too early to “jump to conclusions” that security forces were responsible for the deaths of civilians killed during the red shirt rallies in Bangkok.
Mr Abhisit was responding to leaks from a Department of Special Investigation report which found troops were probably responsible for three deaths at Wat Pathum Wanaram on May 19 and the death of Reuters Japanese cameraman Hiroyuki Muramoto, who was shot on April 10 at Khok Wua intersection. The DSI has sent its preliminary probe result to police. Reuters news agency said on Friday it had seen the report. Mr Abhisit said the word “probably” indicates the cases are far from over.
“After the DSI has wrapped up its probe, the cases will go to police and to court in accordance with legal procedures,” he said.
Yet the Amsterdam & Peroff report – in particular the “Anonymous Witness. No. 20″ statement – suggests that no serious investigation is under way. It says several investigators at the DSI have taken their job seriously:
the majority of the DSI investigators are committed to proper conduct, and will not fabricate evidence or conceal the truth in order to reach a predetermined conclusion. At this time, investigations into more than half of the 89 deaths during the Red Shirt demonstrations – which are in various stages of progress – have concluded, at least preliminarily, that the killings were caused by certain soldiers of the Royal Thai Army under orders from the Thai government and the CRES.
But it alleges that orders were given to suppress these findings:
Some of the DSI investigators that have reached these conclusions have been instructed by their superiors to change their conclusions…
At the moment, certain DSI investigators have completed their initial reports regarding at least four killings in May 2010, which conclude that that certain soldiers of the Royal Thai Army, under orders from the government, caused the deaths. At this stage, the DSI would ordinarily consult with the District Attorney’s Office and request the assignment of a District Attorney to interface with the DSI investigators to begin assessing whether the killings were carried out with intent, or whether they were in self-defense. However, DSI Director Tarit has taken no steps to begin any investigation into the issue of intent. This is contrary to normal DSI procedures and the requirements of Thai law, and is an attempt to delay the cases.
DSI Director Tarit is engaged in a purposeful effort to delay the outcome of the DSI’s investigations. This is evident from his failure to assign the cases promptly for investigation, and from his failure to initiate any investigation into the issue of intent. His failure to advance the case is motivated, at least in part, by the fact that he is a member of CRES, which, under ordinary circumstances, would be the focus of an investigation.
Additionally, consistent with other government efforts to suppress evidence, DSI Director Tarit has issued orders that the DSI investigators are prohibited from summoning any soldier of the Royal Thai Army for interrogation. This position is wholly inconsistent with ordinary practices of the DSI, which would have long ago interrogated anyone the DSI had concluded had been the cause of a killing.
The statement goes on to allege that after copies of DSI investigations were leaked to Reuters in late 2010, a damage-limitation meeting was held by senior Thai officials:
It was reported in the Thai media that Army Commander General Prayuth Chan-Ocha had called for the removal of DSI Director Tarit. Accordingly, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban summoned DSI Director Tarit to meet with him. Immediately after that meeting, Prime Minister Abhisit held a press conference reaffirming his support for DSI Director Tarit. Director Tarit was kept in his position so that he could make a final decision not to prosecute Army leaders or members of the CRES.
Shortly after his meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Suthep, DSI Director Tarit issued an internal DSI edict expressing his sole authority over the determination of whether there had been criminal intent in any of the killings. Without a finding of criminal intent, there can be no criminal liability under Thai law against Army leaders, CRES members or the Thai government. Additionally, following his meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Suthep, DSI Director Tarit informed all of his investigators that if they are unable to identify with specificity the names of the people who pulled the triggers that led to killings during the Red Shirt demonstrations, they must conclude that Red Shirts pulled the triggers.
Additionally, where DSI investigators had concluded that at least five of the six victims from inside the [Wat Pathum Wanaram] Temple had been killed by Army soldiers, DSI Director Tarit unilaterally reduced that number to three.
It is abundantly clear from these events that DSI Director Tarit assured Prime Minister Abhisit, through Deputy Prime Minister Suthep, that he would conclude that there was no criminal intent on the part of any Army soldiers in connection with the civilian and soldiers deaths in April and May 2010, regardless of any finding by DSI investigators concerning the cause of death. In exchange for this concession, DSI Director Tarit was allowed to keep his job.
There is absolutely no possibility that the DSI will voluntarily conduct a proper investigation into the killings of the civilians and soldiers during the Red Shirt demonstrations.
Abhisit and his government can quickly disprove these allegations if they are indeed false: by explaining what stage the investigations have reached and when they will be concluded and go to trial. If they cannot provide this information, why not? What is the government’s position on the apparent conflicts of interest involved in having the DSI investigate these cases? Have the investigations been passed on to police? Why did senior DSI and government officials initially claim that leaked DSI documents were not genuine?
5. WHO KILLED FABIO POLENGHI?
Italian photographer Fabio Polenghi was shot dead on the morning of May 19. He was one of many casualties among medical and media workers during the violence in April and May 2010. All the casualties merit further investigation, but some of the circumstances surrounding the death of Polenghi appear particularly worthy of additional scrutiny. Nine months after Polenghi’s death, the DSI says it still has no idea who killed him. Officials have said no bullet was found in Polenghi’s body. From a large amount of witness evidence it appears clear Polenghi was shot from the direction of Thai army lines. Suthep, as so often, had an entirely different account at the time which has since been comprehensively shown to be untrue:
Suthep, the deputy prime minister, said the Italian had “died side by side” with a Thai soldier when both were struck by an M-79 grenade of the type used by protesters.
Troublingly, the first people to reach his body were men wearing helmets who appear to have stolen his camera and his phone. According to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists:
There is no known footage of the shooting itself. One video clip shows that an unidentified man wearing a silver helmet was the first to reach Polenghi after he was shot. The brief footage shows him feeling around Polenghi’s chest and briefly jostling with his camera, while another unidentified man wearing a yellow helmet kneels and takes his photograph. [Other] footage appears to show the same men being among those who moved Polenghi’s body out of the road and onto the motorcycle that took him to the hospital.
The silver-helmeted man’s picture has been published in both the Thai Rath and Matichon newspapers, but neither he nor the other helmeted man has been identified.
The CPJ report also quotes Bradley Cox, a filmmaker shot at the same time as Polenghi, as saying:
“I don’t know who shot me or Fabio, but if the military was trying to shoot red shirts, there was no one around us. … Soldiers were firing at anything or anybody.”
Several other journalists who were shot during the May violence say police never attempted to interview them to find out what happened – deepening suspicions that there was never a serious attempt to investigate what had happened. Asked in an interview about the follow-up from Thai authorities after he was shot in the shoulder on May 19, Dutch journalist Michel Maas said:
The Thai ministry of Tourism sent me an email in which it offered to cover all the costs of my treatment. But I reckon that was more a courtesy to foreigners in general, to save the image of Thailand as a tourism destination.
Who were the men who first reached the body of Fabio Polenghi? Did they steal his camera, and if so, why? Why has it been so difficult for the DSI to make progress on this case? Why did investigators never interview other journalists who were shot? Did soldiers have unwritten orders to shoot journalists and medical workers?
The list of themes provided here is by no means exhaustive, but it provides some starting points for a collective effort to reclaim the facts. If the authorities want to dispel doubts and conspiracy theories, they could do so by being fully transparent on these issues. If they cannot or will not disclose what they know, the real narrative of those months can still be uncovered, if those with information that sheds light on the unanswered questions of the Bangkok violence share it with others who are also seeking the truth. However big or small each individual’s contribution, it can be cross-checked against others and pieced together so that together we can eventually write the true history of April and May 2010. And that can only be positive for Thailand.