BANGKOK – As the searing late afternoon heat bore down on the massing crowd, three rows of orange-clad monks led the chanting, with thousands of red-clad demonstrators joining in, most with hands clasped and some with heads bowed. Their prayers were for the dead they had come to commemorate, a year ago to the day after the Thai Army dispersed their anti-Government demonstration, which had successively occupied two landmark sites in central Bangkok.
In total 91 people died during the two month demonstration, mostly civilians on the redshirt side, though ten soldiers were killed as well. Just before the prayers, relatives of some of the slain came onstage carrying framed photos of their dead family members. Among the group was Payao Akkhahad, whose daughter Kamolkate was shot on May 19 2010, while tending to wounded protestors in a Buddhist temple close to the rally stage, inside a designated ‘safe haven’.
Nobody has been charged with any of the killings, though a leaked preliminary report by the Department of Special Investigations (DSI) says that most of the shooting came from soldiers. “We are here to commemorate the innocent dead”, said one woman, reluctant to give her name as she helped one of the picture-bearers down from the stage.
The anniversary comes as Thailand gets ready for a parliamentary election, with a close contest expected between the party affiliated to the redshirts and lead member of the current ruling coalition, the Democrat Party.
“It is a lucky number”, exclaimed opposition leader Yingluck Shinawatra, upon hearing that her Puea Thai (For Thais) party drew the No. 1 slot in Thursday morning’s draw for position on the ballot paper for Thailand’s parliamentary election.
The election due to take place on July 3, with Yingluck’s party the frontrunner according to some polls, though seemingly lacking the numbers needed to form a government by itself.
Closest rival is current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva, who congratulated Peua Thai on the outcome of yesterday morning’s FIFA World Cup -style election lottery, but reminded his opponent that the ultimate winner will “depend on getting the most votes”. Mr Abhisit’s administration took power in late 2008 after former allies of the predecessor party to Peau Thai defected.
With an election due by the end of 2011, Abhisit called the vote earlier than required, though not soon enough for some of his compatriots.
The 2010 redshirt protest was aimed at forcing Abhisit to call an early election, as the redshirts saw the means by which he came to power as illegitimate.
When Abhisit conceded an offer to hold elections in October 2010, some redshirts agreed, but it is believed that former Prime Minister and alleged redshirt funder Thaksin Shinawatra refused the offer, which came prior to the May 19 2010 crackdown. Mr Thaksin is the elder brother of Yingluck, who could become the country’s next PM if the July 3 vote goes her way.
There are hopes that the election will put an end to the political divisions in Thailand, after five years of on-off street protests, political violence and numerous changes of Government, including a military coup in 2006.
Speaking on Thursday morning, Thailand’s Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij said that “the election is very good news for Thailand as a whole”, before expressing hope that the vote “will help overcome the problems we have been facing domestically.”
However there are indications that the election will notbe a forgive-and-forget panacea. Royalist yellowshirts are advocating a boycott of the election, saying that all politicians are corrupt and suggesting that Thailand be governed by an appointed administration, at least for an interim period of five years.
The yellowshirts, also known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy, helped bring down the redshirt-aligned Government in 2008, by occupying Bangkok’s main international airport and the seat of Government. At Thursday morning’s election draw, yellowshirts and redshirts briefly came close outside the building, though it appeared little more than wary glances were exchanged.
For redshirts too, the elections will not solve everything, but for different reasons. Aunyanee Songkiatthana, who described herself as a middle-class Bangkokian, said that the elections will be “just a step” in solving Thailand’s political problems, and warned that “unless double standards are ended, there will be more protests”.
Another protestor, bedecked in a placard inscribed “91 won’t die free”, and giving his name as “Who” said that “there will be demonstrations until justice is done”, but sidestepping the question of whether he thinks redshirts will return to the streets if the elections return the Democrat Party to Government.