Legacy of Thailand's bitter political turbulence

Thai TV reporter Karuna Buakamsri reflects on the events of 19 May 2010 and their consequences

On an army training base in Kanchanaburi, a province about two hours' drive out of Bangkok, recruits were being put through their paces.

Small groups of newly minted soldiers in camouflage uniforms, shiny boots and black berets responded to commands from drill instructors as they leapt over ditches, climbed rope ladders and jumped from 3m-high walls into the dusty, red earth below.

The majority were women destined to work in administrative roles, but they were still expected to master the jungle assault course.

Among them was Kanitta Chansantor, striving to make her husband proud. But he is not alive to see her do it.

On 19 May 2010, Sgt Anusit Chansantor, was part of the operation to disperse anti-government protesters from the streets of Bangkok.

The soldiers met resistance from armed elements within the protest camp. Sgt Anusit was hit by a grenade and killed.

The protesters, known as the red-shirts, had occupied parts of the capital for more than two months, trying to force the government to step down.

By the time the demonstrations were over, more than 90 people had lost their lives - soldiers, protesters, journalists and medics.

Sitting on the grass, the assault course successfully conquered, Kanitta told me her husband died a hero.

But her young son is still traumatised by what happened and worries that, now his mother has joined the army, he might lose her too.

"He calls me every day just to check that I haven't been shot," Kanitta explained.

What about the person who fired the grenade that killed Anusit? I wonder. Shouldn't they be brought to justice?

"When it first happened I wanted to know who did it and why," Kanitta told me.

"But now it's not so important. My husband died on the battlefield doing his duty. He loved the army. Now I've taken his place."

Sacrifice

A year ago, as the army moved to crush the red-shirt resistance, people desperately searched for a safe place to shelter.

Phayao, the mother of Nurse Kate Phayao says her daughter, a 25-year-old volunteer medic, sacrificed herself to help other people

Hundreds headed to the Wat Pathum Buddhist temple, right in the heart of the protesters' camp.

But sacred ground proved no guarantee of sanctuary. The temple came under fire; six bodies were recovered the next day.

The facts as to who was doing the shooting and why are disputed.

There were soldiers stationed on the elevated tracks of Bangkok's Skytrain system. The army says there were militants in the area. Witnesses within the temple are convinced the shots came from a high position.

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch, which recently released a detailed report on last year's political violence, concluded that high-velocity rounds were fired by soldiers into the temple compound.

Officially the investigation is continuing.

Start Quote

If my loved one was killed, the only thing I would want to know is the truth”

End Quote Karuna Buakamsri Thailand TV journalist

Among those shot dead was a 25-year-old volunteer medic, Kamonkate Akahad, better known simply as Nurse Kate.

In the main room of the house she shared with her mother and brothers, Kate's photograph has pride of place. A simple shrine has been set up; Kate's ashes surrounded by her childhood dolls and garlands of fresh jasmine.

Her mother, Phayao, showed me the over-shirt Kate was wearing on the day she died. It is clearly marked with a red cross and tarnished with bloodstains.

Phayao has learned what happened to her daughter from those inside the temple at the time.

"Someone was shot and Kate went to help," Phayao said.

"She (Kate) was dragging the injured person inside the temple. Someone shouted at her, 'hey, they're shooting - come back'."

But she was a nurse and she thought she would be safe. She was wrong.

"I'm so proud of my daughter," Phayao told me, her eyes filling with tears. "She sacrificed herself to help other people."

Bitter legacy

In the aftermath of last year's bloodshed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established - but progress has been slow.

One of the members of the commission, Somchai Homlaor, a respected human rights lawyer, told the BBC it had been difficult getting access to soldiers directly involved in the confrontations. Other witnesses have been reluctant to come forward for fear of prosecution.

Red-shirt protesters mark six months since bloody clashes with the military in Bangkok (file photo) Red-shirt protesters have held vigils to remember those who died during last year's protests

"Unlike in South Africa or East Timor, or even Cambodia, where inquiries were established after the conflict had already ended, we are working within a conflict situation," Somchai said.

The red-shirts have regrouped and now hold regular, peaceful rallies, still pressing their demands for the justice and equality they claim is lacking in Thailand.

The country is facing an election, due on 3 July, which some fear could stir up old resentments.

Local television journalist, Karuna Buakamsri, has travelled to other countries that have dealt with similar situations to see whether lessons could be learned from their experience. The comparison with Thailand, she told me, is striking.

"When I was in Africa I found out that the culture there is so different from Thai culture or Asian culture as a whole. They stand up, they argue and they talk. They bring about truth. It's painful but it works in most cases.

"But in Thailand I don't think we're used to that way. But if my loved one was killed, the only thing I would want to know is the truth," Karuna said.

The truth behind the violence of 19 May last year is proving elusive.

A year ago Phayao wasn't interested in politics. But since the death of her daughter, Nurse Kate, she's become a staunch supporter of the red-shirts.

Meanwhile, Kanita has completed her military training and is now deployed as an army clerk in Bangkok. A mother-turned-activist and a housewife-turned-soldier - such is the legacy of Thailand's bitter political turbulence.

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