This past week, the Thai Department of Special Investigation (DSI) charged former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban for authorizing the shooting and killing of protestors in spring 2010, during the worst street violence in Bangkok since 1992. According to the Bangkok Post, the DSI issued these charges since “the pair failed to stop issuing orders to quell the protests when people were killed as a result of the crackdown orders.” But, the Post reported, DSI is not going to bring any charges against soldiers involved in the crackdown.
Now, obviously, there is a political component to these charges, which Abhisit immediately used to his defense. The fact that the Thai government is now run by leaders aligned with, or directly from, the red shirt movement, suggests why DSI is moving now against Abhisit and Suthep, who are both still leaders of the opposing Democrat Party. In addition, the fact that DSI does not plan to charge any soldiers, including officers, shows how much the Yingluck government still needs the support of the military, even though it has been promoting its own allies and trying to weaken the power of army commander Prayuth Chan-ocha. Although Abhisit and Suthep bear significant responsibility for the killings, army leaders from the time, as well as senior officers who did not restrain themselves, used excessive force, and actually performed so incompetently in command that parts of downtown, such as Lumpini Park, reportedly were filled with troops firing wildly at other groups of soldiers in the dark or near dark, creating crossing zones of fire with no rationale.
Still, even given the obvious politicking, this is a landmark case. In the past, any Thai leaders involved in crackdowns on protestors—whether in 1992, 1973, 1976, or other times—would usually step down or be gently strong-armed out of office, receive a kind of amnesty or leave the country, and return to politics or at least to Thai high society one day. No top Thai leader has ever been sent to jail for actions like the 2010 crackdown. If the Yingluck administration can ensure a free trial and prevent the case from devolving into a political circus, this case could help break the cycle of impunity that has characterized high-level Thai politics for the entire modern era.