Opinion: Charging Murder in Thailand

One might be tempted to celebrate the fact that Tarit Pengdit, head of Thailand's Department of Special Investigations, has forwarded the murder cases stemming from the May 2010 massacre against former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy Suthep Thuagsuban to the public prosecutor. Tarit stated that there was ample evidence that they had ordered the killings of Red Shirt pro-democracy demonstrators.

However, I take a different view. First there is no guarantee that the prosecutor will actually charge Abhisit and Sutep. Second, even if they actually come to court, one would have to suspend reason to believe that they will actually be sentenced to life imprisonment for mass murder.

I do not believe in the death sentence and so I would never wish them to be executed as many "murderers" have been in this country. Thirdly, and most significantly, Tarit announced that no soldiers will be prosecuted, thus continuing the appalling tradition of allowing the military to act with total impunity.

It was the army that overthrew the democratically elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. The coup-makers then appointed a military junta to rule the country for a year. When elections were held, it was the military who moved behind the scenes, along with the judges, to overthrow the elected government again.

The military, under the command of generals Anupong Paochinda and his deputy Prayuth Chan-ocha then established a military-backed government under Abhisit Vejjajiva and his mis-named Democratic Party. The Democrat Party never won a majority in elections and was totally beholden to the military. Formally Abhisit was Prime Minister, but the real power was in the hands of the military under generals Anupong and Prayuth. Both military officers had previously played key roles in the 2006 coup d'etat.

When the Center for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES) was set up in response to Red Shirt protests demanding democratic elections, it was established and operated inside an army camp and was controlled by top military generals including Anupong and Prayuth. Prayuth had day-to-day responsibility for military operations.

Abhisit and Sutep were also centrally involved with Sutep having the formal position of "director". However, it would have been impossible for these two civilian politicians to have had any real power over the military and to have ordered the military operations against the Red Shirts which resulted in nearly 90 deaths. The orders must have come from Prayut and Anupong and been approved by Abhisit and Sutep. All four are guilty of mass-murder.

So why let the military generals off the hook?

We can immediately dismiss the excuse which some pro-Yingluk, pro-Thaksin Red Shirts might make that "it was the King who actually ordered the killings". King Bhumibol Adulyadej has always been incapable of giving real orders. He is a creature of the military and the elites, who use him to legitimize their actions. In addition to this he has been sick and hospitalised for many years. Anyway, this excuse would mean that Abhisit and Sutep should also be left alone.

The military have been left off the hook in Thailand's "Game of Bodies" because Taksin, Yingluk and the governing Pheu Thai Party have long made a deal with the military. In return for tolerating the election of the Pheu Thai Government in 2011, the military will be absolved of any wrong-doing. In the future Thaksin will also be allowed to return to Thailand.

The lese majeste law, which has been used against progressive Red Shirts, will also not be changed or abolished. In early 2012 Thaksin made a speech in Cambodia in which he said that he had no quarrel with the military and that his only opponents were the Democrat Party.

The case against Abhisit and Sutep serves a number of important functions. First, it is a "displacement activity" to create an image of a government which seeks to bring the killers of the Red Shirts to justice. The government is dependent on Red Shirt votes.

But unless the whole basis of Thai society is changed by the actions of strong social movements, Abhisit and Sutep will never spend the rest of their lives in jail. If they did, it would create a precedent to bring Thaksin to court for ordering the killings in the War on Drugs and at Tak Bai in the South. Secondly, having a case hanging over the heads of Abhisit and Sutep is a good bargaining counter in negotiations to bring Taksin back and amend the Constitution in favour of Pheu Thai politicians.

There are no plans by the Pua Thai Party to amend the Constitution or re-draft a Constitution to bring about real democracy. The proposals of the Nitirat group of progressive law academics does not have Pheu Thai support. Importantly this bargaining counter will not upset the military as they and Pheu Thai feel that Abhisit and Sutep can be used and abused.

What the elites on both sides of the divide would like to see is a return to their form of stability where the crimes of the generals and politicians are white-washed away and the lese majeste prisoners are left to rot in jail. The only challenge to this plan will come from a strong progressive pro-democracy movement which can develop out of the best elements of the Red Shirts.

These elements will have to reject Pheu Thai, Thaksin and the leadership of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, the putative leadership of the Red Shirts. They will also have to reject the crude and reactionary tactics of the "51" group of Chiang Mai Red Shirts who have behaved like thugs and exhibited homophobic behavior.

(Giles Ji Ungpakorn fled Thailand ahead of lese majeste charges. He currently lives in the UK.)