The Abhisit Indictment: Political ploy?

Thailand's former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy officially denied murder charges on Dec. 13 in Bangkok, saying they weren't responsible for troops who allegedly shot dead a taxi driver during a May 2010 protest against Abhisit's widely despised administration.

The murder charges, first announced a week ago, carry a maximum penalty of death and were brought against the two politicians by the Department of Special Investigations, Thailand's version of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. Abhisit and his former deputy prime minister for security affairs, Suthep Thaugsuban, were not detained after being questioned.

The charges against the two have been branded unprecedented in Thai law by legal scholars, who point out that no charges have ever been filed in previous attacks on protesters in the so-called Black May crackdown in 1992 led by Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon, in which 52 people were gunned down and an unknown number were disappeared before King Bhumibol Adulyadej stepped in to stop the bloodletting. Another crackdown, ordered in 1976, resulted in the deaths of 46 students at Thammasat University who were demonstrating against the return to power of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn.

In fact, the arrests of the two are widely viewed by political observers in Thailand as extremely unlikely to result in conviction or execution. They appear to be a political gambit by the ruling Pheu Thai Party to put Abhisit's Democrat Party on the back foot, analysts say. Pheu Thai for months has been seeking ways to pressure the opposition into accepting a broad amnesty that would include allowing Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's exiled brother, Thaksin, to return to Thailand from his bolt-hole in Dubai.

"It's a political game and a way for Pheu Thai to gain the upper hand by forcing their opposition to accept some sort of amnesty deal," Kan Yuenyong, director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a think tank in Bangkok, told Reuters last week.

For one thing, the charges leave far too many others out of the affair, including Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the current commanding chief of the armed forces and the man who ran the military operation against the civilians, of whom more than 90 were shot and killed. Prayuth today remains in power with no charges contemplated against him, or against any other senior military officials for their role in firing on the frequently violent protestors.

"Personally, I do not believe that (Abhisit) will be convicted," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a contributor to Asia Sentinel and a veteran observer of Thai politics. "There are too many powerful people involved in the operation."

In any case, the two apparently will try to shield themselves by pointing to a "state of emergency" decree they issued during the 2010 insurrection which granted themselves and other officials immunity from prosecution.

The cases are the first major charges against Abhisit and his deputy for presiding over the military's deadly crackdown against the nine-week-long insurrection in Bangkok staged by so-called Red Shirts who were demanding an immediate election.

Troops shot dead taxi driver Phan Kamkong shortly after the protests began, a court ruled in September.

"What happened was that a van was trying to crash through the barrier set up by the military," Abhisit told the British Broadcasting Corp (BBC) earlier this month. "There were shots being fired. This person ran out to see what happened and unfortunately got caught."

"We did authorize the use of live ammunition" to quell the insurrection, Abhisit said in the BBC interview.

The Reds -- officially known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship -- dubbed Abhisit "The Butcher of Bangkok" and a "puppet" of the military.

Asked in a recent interview if the military and Yingluck had agreed not to put military leaders on trial for their role in the crackdown, and instead to blame Abhisit and Suthep, a senior army officer who asked not to be identified replied that no such conspiracy existed, but could inadvertently occur.

About two dozen suspected protestors face terrorism and other charges for their roles in the insurrection, as a result of cases filed against them during Abhisit's final year in power. Those individuals are either still in jail or out on bail, raising the hackles of the Red Shirt forces that played a major role in the Pheu Thai electoral victory that brought Yingluck to power.

Abhisit, an urbane, Oxford-educated politician, repeatedly said law and order needed to be established because thousands of Red Shirts occupied Bangkok's wealthiest commercial intersection by erecting barriers of sharpened bamboo spears and rolls of barbed wire, to keep security forces away during clashes in the streets.

Troops obliterated the nine-week insurrection on May 19, 2010. Their final urban assault included armored personnel carriers ramming the barricades while ground forces and sharpshooters opened fire amid five-star hotels, lavish shopping malls, expensive condominiums and office buildings.

Today, a Red-supported, massively popular coalition government rules this Buddhist-majority, pro-U.S Southeast Asian nation, led by Yingluck's Phueu Thai-- or "For Thais" -- party.

Abhisit and the Democrats had opposed Thaksin Shinawatra, when he won three consecutive elections starting in 2001. After the Thaksin-allied forces were driven from power by a court ruling, Abhisit was named prime minister when the military put heavy pressure on parliamentarians to switch sides to amass the votes to put him into office.

Thaksin is currently an international fugitive dodging a two-year jail sentence for a conflict of interest real estate deal involving his ex-wife while he was in power. He has been campaigning ever since the election that brought Pheu Thai to power to return to Thailand without being jailed. Those attempts have been met with implacable opposition by an admixture of royalists and the Yellow Shirt People?s Alliance for Democracy and many of the Thai urban middle class.

He now wants to return to Thailand without being jailed, and get back his $1.8 billion in assets which was seized after a separate corruption conviction linked to his personal investments.

(Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist. His websites are http://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com and http://www.flickr.com/photos/animists/sets)