BANGKOK — The military operation that dispersed Redshirt protesters in 2010 and left more than 90 people dead was not a "crackdown," says a former government official and key witness in an ongoing legal case over the incident.
Thawil Pliensri, who served as director of the National Security Council under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, was called by Thailand’s national anti-graft agency to testify in Abhisit's defense today. The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) is currently seeking to retroactively impeach Abhisit and his deputy, Suthep Thaugsuban, for authorizing the military operation on Redshirt protesters in April – May 2010.
Soldiers advance in front of Lumpini boxing stadium in Bangkok on 15 May 2010.
The NACC has charged Abhisit and Suthep with abuse of power for excessive use of force against civilians in the operation. If the NACC proceeds with the case, Thailand's junta-appointed legislature will vote on whether to impeach the former Democrat Party politicians and thereby ban them from politics for five years. If they are found guilty, Abhisit and Suthep will be the first state officials to be held responsible for the 2010 crackdown.
Thawil said he testified to the NACC today that security officers were forced to respond to the protests because armed militants had infiltrated the demonstrators and launched attacks on troops, police, and important buildings. He also contested the use of the word "crackdown," a widely accepted term used by Thai and foreign media to describe the events.
"There was no use of force or crackdown on the protests," Thawil said. "I am not saying this to play with words, or because I am avoiding using the term crackdown, but that is what really happened. There was no crackdown."
Thawil continued, "There are two events that the protesters refer to as a crackdown, the event on 10 April 2010 around Khok Wua intersection, which was an effort to ask the protesters to return the area [to traffic], and the events between May 11 – 19 2010. That wasn't a crackdown, either. It was an effort to tighten the perimeter around the protest camps. The security officers did not crack down on the protests."
According to Thawil, even the final assault on Redshirt protest camps on 19 May 2010, which involved armored vehicles, was not a crackdown because "the leaders called off the protests on their own."
"After that, a riot broke out," Thawil said. "There were arson attacks in Bangkok. Thirty-seven buildings were burned, and four provincial city halls were burned down too. Security officers stopped the situation at that point. We didn't crack down on the protests."
Although Thawil admitted that live ammunition was used in the military operation, he insisted that security officers resorted to using firearms only after they were attacked by Redshirt-allied militants on the night of 10 April 2010, and that security officers strictly followed rules of engagement.
When a reporter asked Thawil to comment on court inquests that say security officers were responsible for the deaths of at least 18 victims in the crackdown, Thawil suggested that the rulings were not definitive, though he refused to elaborate.
He also lashed out at Redshirt leaders for frequently referring to the clashes in 2010 as "The Crackdown of 99 Deaths" because the government has counted only 91 deaths, 55 of which were Redshirt protesters.
"So there were only 55 [dead protesters]. These people died between the period of 10 April and 19 May. The incidents were not caused by security officers using force to pressure the protesters, and causing almost 100 deaths. It wasn't like that," Thawil said.
The Abhisit government and military commanders have repeatedly blamed Redshirt-allied militants known as the Blackshirts for the crackdown violence, despite evidence of soldiers firing their weapons indiscriminately into crowds of unarmed protesters.
Although Redshirt leaders have repeatedly denied any connection to the Blackshirts, a number of activists have privately acknowledged that the militants were allied to their movement and provided a necessary self-defense against the military.
The identity of the Blackshirts has never been independently verified, though police arrested five men and one woman suspected of belonging to the militant cell last September. The group is awaiting trial in Bangkok prisons.