Legal cases against Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, Thailand’s former prime minister are starting to pile up.
Last month the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) charged the opposition leader over alleged illegal party donations for flood relief, and the military officially stripped Abhisit of minor military titles accusing him of draft-dodging years ago which could lead to a ruling barring him from serving as an MP.
By far the most serious charges facing Abhisit are those of murder, attempted murder and physical assault relating to his time as premier during political violence that erupted in Bangkok in April and May 2010 when opposition red shirts fought street battles with the military.
Following at least 23 coups or major rebellions in Thailand over the past century, senior human rights lawyer Sarawut Pratoomraj notes that holding Abhisit to account for some of the 91 deaths and more than 2,000 people injured during the violence in 2010 would be unprecedented.
“This is the first time in Thai history that our PM has been treated like a criminal,” he says.
But do these charges— as well as Abhisit’s threats to sue the DSI officials for charging him— represent the beginnings of justice and reconciliation in Thailand or simply the latest round of political one-upmanship?
The case against Abhisit and then deputy Suthep Thaugsuban is based around Phan Khamkong, a taxi driver, and father of four who was – according to a September court ruling – shot and killed by troops on May 15, 2010.
If Abhisit and Suthep are found guilty they could face the death penalty but a conviction would, in theory, require “clarifying who gave the order to use a weapon,” says Sarawut.
Abhisit has repeatedly argued that his job was to restore order in a city where red-shirt protestors were encamped on major intersections and reportedly threw Molotov cocktails and fired rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). Soldiers were ordered to fire only in self-defense, he has said.
Sarawut argues that the army should also be included in any judicial process but so far that appears to be unlikely, at least at the highest level.
In August, Army Chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha said that the head of the DSI and therefore the person leading the investigation against Abhisit, Tarit Pengdith, apologized to him by telephone after DSI officials attributed blame to the military for what happened in 2010. Tarit has declined to comment on what was said during their conversation.
As member of the Center for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation to restore order during the violence, Tarit has had to fend off claims that perhaps he too should be indicted, while also defending his impartiality as a civil servant following accusations he is being politically opportunistic in pursuing Abhisit and Suthep.
Among Abhisit’s supporters, the main criticism has been that charges serve as a political gambit designed to smooth exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s return to Thailand.
The government of Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra has for months tried to gain parliamentary approval to rewrite the constitution and pass an amnesty bill, a clean slate which would be retroactive to allow clemency for her brother who was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption.
“We are willing to go through the juristic system,” says Chavanond Intarakomalyasut, chief spokesman for Abhisit’s Democrats. “[But] it’s just a measure by the government to put pressure on the opposition to pass the amnesty bill.”
The red shirts, many of whom support Yingluck and Thaksin and who see themselves as the main victims of the violence nearly three years ago, have argued that the charges against Abhisit – however flawed – would represent a great deal more than politicking.
Most red shirts consider Abhisit enemy number one, the man responsible for killing and repressing their members during the dark days of 2010.
Jakrapob Penkair, a founder of the movement that became the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship UDD), the core of the red shirts, and a former Thaksin spokesman in exile, says the truth is that red shirts in many cases simply want “to take revenge.” But ultimately charges against Abhisit are also seen as a test of whether the Thai judiciary can be reliable.
Last week, two members of UDD filed a lawsuit against Abhisit and Suthep for attempted murder, saying they were shot by police who were acting under the former prime minister and his deputies orders during the 2010 protests.
Most importantly, he adds, the ongoing legal process sends a message to the highest levels of the establishment that people in power can be held accountable and that the overall system is capable of positive change.
“Abhisit’s trial would be seen as the very first step to get Thailand back on track,” says Jakrapob.
“Thaksin’s comeback should be at the bottom of our priorities,” he added.
Either way, Yingluck’s government faces a difficult balancing act. In a country that remains heavily divided along color-coded party lines, many supporters claim her government has created the political conditions for a former leader to finally be held accountable for violence against the people.
But critics argue the administration is encouraging a flawed process to anoint a scapegoat who just so happens to be the arch-enemy of her and brother Thaksin, the real center of power.
Political analyst Dr. Pavin Chachavalpongpun says that if critics of Yingluck are right and this is just a rouse to get her brother Thaksin back to Thailand by pressuring – but not punishing – Abhisit then ultimately risks alienating the Shinawatra support base.
With most red shirts keen to see Thaksin’s return but perhaps even more eager for Abhisit to be held accountable for the events of 2010, Pavin says it would be “absurd” if the political elite across the board simply gave itself a get-out-of-jail-free card for the past six or so years, the period of the proposed amnesty.
“This [the legal process against Abhisit] is a good start but we don’t know how it will end,” says Pavin. “I’m not convinced that the end product will be one that satisfies everyone – especially the red shirts.”
Steve Finch is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, TIME, The Independent, Toronto Star and Bangkok Post among others.