Photo Gallery: A Prime Minister Under Fire

Foto: AHMAD YUSNI/ picture alliance / dpa

Witness No. 22 Military Officials Lodge Serious Allegations against Thai Government

The images of the May 2010 bloodbath in Bangkok were broadcast around the world, but the circumstances of the streetfighting remain unresolved today. A Canadian lawyer who would like to seek the prosecution of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, has shared the evidence he has collected with SPIEGEL.

The red flags of the opposition are flying again. Around 40,000 people have gathered here in downtown Bangkok, wearing the red shirts that gave their protest movement its name and waving pictures of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The protesters are angry. In their chants and on their banners, they call for the overthrow of the "Amart," the elite comprised of aristocracy, military and government, which the opposition believes has the country "in a stranglehold." They are demanding an explanation for the bloodbath that spelled the end of their uprising against the Thai government nearly three-quarters of a year ago.

"The government talks about reconciliation, but for us the situation is still intolerable," says Worachai Hema, one of the Red Shirts' new leaders. "Most of our leaders are in jail and the government isn't doing anything to investigate the military's crimes."

The site chosen for the protest on this day is a symbolic one. Demonstrators have met here at the Ratchaprasong intersection twice this January. It's the spot where, about eight months ago, a dozen members of the political opposition died in a hail of the army's bullets and large parts of the nearby Central World shopping center, home to top-end boutiques and electronics stores, burned down.

Largest Outbreak of Violence Since 1970s

Those events in spring 2010, when opponents of the government occupied a large section of the city center for over two months, represented the largest outbreak of political violence in Thailand since the 1970s, when the government of the time crushed several large-scale student revolts.

The photographs that caught the world's attention in the spring of 2010 looked like snapshots out of a war zone -- snipers in camouflage and opposition members killed by shots to the head. Defenseless demonstrators came systematically under fire, with many dying in front of the cameras.

Around 1,900 people were injured during the unrest in April and May 2010 and around 90 died. It was an unequal fight -- nine of the dead were soldiers, while more than 80 were civilians, including nurses and two foreign journalists.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva remains in office, but has relocated his residence, as a precaution, to the grounds of the 11th Infantry Regiment in the capital's Bangkhen district. He is backed by the military, which carried out the coup that drove Abhisit's predecessor, Thaksin, out of office and into exile. Abhisit is also widely believed to have the king's support.

Little Progress in Investigations

It's not surprising, then, that investigations into events surrounding the Red Shirts' uprising aren't making much progress. "The army and the police barely cooperate with us," complains Somchai Homlaor, a member of the Independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up in Bangkok after last year's violence. Publication of the group's final report has been postponed indefinitely. It is impossible to uncover the truth without questioning soldiers who were involved, Somchai adds.

But the situation could now change. Canadian lawyer Robert Amsterdam  has compiled evidence, which he presented to the International Criminal Court this week and which has also been made available to SPIEGEL.

These documents incriminate not only the Thai military, but also the prime minister. If the allegations are corroborated, Abhisit's government may have some serious explaining to do. The centerpiece of Amsterdam's evidence consists of depositions given under oath by high-ranking members of the Thai military, submitted by the Canadian lawyer as the "Statement of Anonymous Witness No. 22."

According to these statements, the military was aware after the 2006 coup -- the 18th military coup in the country since 1932 -- that mass protests by Thaksin supporters would occur sooner or later. Military leaders began early on to plan how to violently put down demonstrations and did so "with the full knowledge and authorization of the Thai government," the witnesses' statements continue. They also say the military constructed a "full-scale mock-up" of Bangkok streets inside the 11th Regiment's facilities for practice and that training was provided for armed forces snipers.

Retaliation Killings and Propaganda

After the first mass protests in spring 2009, the witnesses allege, former Army Commander General Prem Tinsulanonda personally ordered his men to "assassinate some of the Red Shirt leaders" in "retaliation" for demonstrating in front of his home. At least six members of the opposition were killed, they say, and more than 100 wounded. When international media didn't look into those executions, the witnesses add, army leadership felt vindicated in their actions.

Meanwhile, they continue, the military's tactics consisted of presenting the public with the "false appearance" that the Red Shirts are "violent, dangerous and a threat to the monarchy," while also sending out "provocateur groups" to "terrorize the public and lay blame on the Red Shirts," starting in early February 2010. These agitators allegedly set off bombs in various locations -- acts for which the Red Shirts were later held responsible.

The conflict between the government and the Red Shirts reached its first peak on April 10, 2010. The Red Shirts had laid siege to the Ratchaprasong intersection a week earlier and some shopping centers and hotels in downtown Bangkok had just been closed. The city was under a state of emergency for the third day running, as the military positioned snipers and machine guns at important locations to prevent the protests from spreading.

What is not yet known is what role the government played as the army prepared to act against the demonstrators, nor how much Prime Minister Abhisit knew about these activities.

If Amsterdam's witnesses can be believed, little went on without the prime minister's knowledge. "Prime Minister Abhisit was personally present at every meeting involving the government leadership, the military leadership and the CRES (Committee for the Resolution of Emergency Situation) concerning the Red Shirt demonstrations," the witnesses attest. "He expressly approved each and every order given to the army."

An Indiscriminate Bloodbath

On April 10, thousands of protesters moved into the government district to continue their demonstrations there. According to Witness 22, snipers opened fire on the crowd in the area around the Khok Wua intersection at approximately 5 p.m., an act the government deemed to be "self-defense." Now, though, the military witnesses claim the soldiers were meant from the outset to provoke an attack on the army.

One hour later, snipers on the roof of Streewit School shot at the legs of demonstrating Red Shirts and members of the 2nd Division fired into the crowd near the Democracy Monument. A bullet killed Japanese cameraman Hiro Muramoto.

According to Witness 22, the demonstrators had hardly fought back against the soldiers at this point: "The crowd, however, did not take any threatening action," the witnesses account reads, "and only lit firecrackers and threw plastic water bottles at the army troops."

"At approximately 19:15 (7:15 p.m.), two separate grenades exploded behind the front lines of the 2nd Infantry Division," the statement continues, adding that several soldiers died in the attack. Amsterdam's witnesses don't know whether the soldiers were killed by Red Shirts or by agitators from within the army. The attack led to a bloodbath, with the 2nd Infantry Division opening fire indiscriminately. In the end, 25 people were killed and 800 injured.

'Target any Member of the Media'

Those events caused the military's strategy to come largely undone. The mere existence of images revealing the military's brutality left army leadership scrambling, Witness 22 says. The order went out to prevent photographs and video recordings at any cost, with the result that the 2nd Cavalry Division had to "target any member of the media that entered the area" from then on. The witnesses say the army also had orders to shoot at "anyone trying to remove a body."

They say similar operating orders were in effect on May 19, the day the Ratchaprasong intersection was finally cleared. Tanks broke through the opposition's burning barricades that morning, snipers fired from the rooftops and soldiers stormed across the tracks of Bangkok's Skytrain metro system, driving the last of the Red Shirts onto the grounds of a temple.

According to lawyer Amsterdam's witnesses, the soldiers were authorized to open fire on anyone suspected of carrying a weapon, even if it was nothing more than a slingshot. Red Shirt leaders, they say, were to be sought out and shot.

At least 14 people died in the conflict that day, including two nurses and Italian photojournalist Fabio Polenghi, who regularly contributed to SPIEGEL.

Witness 22 has another serious claim. At around 5:45 p.m., after the army had stormed the last of the barricades and the Red Shirt leaders had turned themselves in to the police, individuals associated with the army allegedly forced their way into Central World mall and set it ablaze, as evidence of the Red Shirts' supposed destructive rage.

Amsterdam has retained American military expert Joe Ray Witty, a former Green Beret, as an expert witness in the case. After viewing the witnesses' statements, as well as footage of the events, Witty concluded, "The Royal Thai Army repeatedly targeted unarmed civilians during the period April 10 through May 19, 2010, using deadly force in a manner that was wholly inconsistent with reasonable law enforcement standards, but rather was unprovoked, unjustified, intentional and criminal."

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