Red Shirts warn new Thai government to seek justice

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Support for the red-shirt protest movement that rallied behind Thai Prime minister-elect Yingluck Shinawatra, helping her win elections by a landslide, could splinter if demands for justice over deadly protests last year are not met, its leader said.

The red shirts, whose protests paralysed Bangkok last year and sparked a bloody military crackdown that ended with 91 people killed and nearly 2,000 wounded, want a thorough investigation into the army’s role in civilian deaths, the movement’s chairwoman told Reuters.

That is one of several demands threatening to open fissures in the support base of Yingluck, whose Puea Thai (For Thais) party swept parliamentary elections on the back of support from the urban and rural poor red shirts, especially in Thailand’s vote-rich northeast.

Despite controlling about 60 percent of parliament in a planned six-party coalition, Yingluck must avoid antagonising the military’s top brass and the royalist establishment — powerful forces that removed her brother from power in 2006 in one of Thailand’s 18 coups since the 1930s.

The red shirts are wary of a mooted plan for an amnesty that would allow Yingluck’s brother, fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to return home from self-exile if it ends up as part of a pact clearing military leaders of responsibility for last year’s crackdown.
“We can’t jump to an amnesty or propose the amnesty law without the right judicial process first,” Thida Thaworseth, chairwoman of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), as the red shirt movement is formally known, said in an interview on Thursday.

Yingluck has said a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would continue to investigate the mostly civilian killings, which the red shirts blame on the military. She has suggested a general amnesty as a way to achieve national reconciliation.
“Thai people on both side have to know the truth first. Who is responsible for 91 deaths and more than 2,000 injuries, including military deaths, and who burnt buildings,” she said.

The previous government blamed arson attacks during last year’s protests on the red shirts, who countered that soldiers burnt some buildings to try to discredit the protesters.

The red shirts accuse the rich, the Bangkok establishment and top military brass of breaking laws with impunity — grievances that have festered since the generals removed Thaksin, a divisive figure revered by the poor and loathed by Thailand’s traditional establishment.

But Thida suggested the red shirts’ support of the new government could evaporate. That would raise the risk of more unrest in a country beset by a six-year political crisis.
“The future of the red shirts and the Puea Thai government depends on whether Puea Thai still governs by listening to the people or not,” said Thida. “I hope no one is unwise and ignores the people’s voice.”

The red shirts will hold an election celebration in Bangkok’s sprawling Lumpini Park on July 17 and declare their intention to continue the push for democracy, she said.
“If the government pushes for an amnesty for all parties and can’t find the truth, who ordered people shot, how can I explain the reason to my family that I sacrificed my life, my eyes for democracy,” red shirt protester Seksit Chang-thong, who was shot in the legs and head, told Reuters.
“I was blinded after being shot in the head. The bullet is buried in my head and I can’t have surgery. Even if I can’t see anything I think I will fight for democracy in this country.”

Pitch Pongsawat, political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, does not expect the red shirts and Puea Thai to split.
“I think the red shirts are not really demanding full-scale revenge. If they put two or three big people in jail, I think the red shirts will be happy,” he said.
“They do not want to destroy the whole army.”

The lawyer for a jailed “red shirt” leader told the Bangkok Post that reconciliation looked like just a Puea Thai slogan. “It looks like the kind of reconciliation where no one will be punished for the deaths and injuries,” said Prawais Prapanugool.

The outgoing defence minister has said the army will accept the election results. But many believe unrest will return, possibly to prevent the return of Thaksin, a billionaire who won elections twice in 2001 and 2005 before his ouster. He was convicted of corruption and lives now in Dubai to avoid jail.

He says the charges were politically motivated.

Thida said the red shirts would not spark conflict but added some people were trying to create the impression of division within the movement over a possible amnesty.
“We have never talked about amnesty. This condition has never been spoken about by the red shirts,” she said.

The red shirts see no need for an amnesty as they believe they did not commit an offence, but were the victims in the clashes in central Bangkok between April and May 2010, she said.
“We believe that we are not guilty,” said Thida, adding she wanted jailed “red shirts” freed. At least 417 people were detained in connection with violating an emergency decree during last year’s red-shirt protests, according to Human Rights Watch.

Yingluck is still shaping her new government and on Thursday said that “red shirt” MPs may be included as ministers.
“We will choose persons by their ability and qualification that match their duties. However, we haven’t discussed about the cabinet yet. We are now at a stage of policy drafting,” she told reporters.

A cabinet dominated by pro-Thaksin ministers could weaken her calls for reconciliation, while including red shirt MPs could cause internal strains if their agendas diverged.