Thailand reds shirts, yellow shirts duel over victim compensation

Thailand's political turmoil pits anti-government red shirts against the yellow shirts, who back the current regime. Now the government and the opposition are vying to compensate the victims of the political violence.

By , Correspondent

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    Pro-government supporters wave Thai flags in front of anti-government 'red shirt' protesters at an intersection close to the Silom Road financial district in Bangkok on Wednesday.
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The pickup truck pulled up at the Buddhist temple and offloaded a wooden coffin. Inside was the body of Vasan Putong, who died on April 10 of a gunshot wound during a night of clashes in Bangkok between security forces and anti-government protesters that left 25 dead.

The victim's mother Charoen Pongton sat at an outdoor table, her eyes red and her voice reduced to a husk. By her side was a framed photo of Mr. Vasan, a self-employed tailor, standing in a crowd of people dressed in the red shirts of the Thailand protest movement, which he followed until his death.

The red shirt protestor say that the ouster of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 was illegal and want current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva removed from office. Many of the red shirts are poor, rural Thais, and have tied up Thailand's capital with anti-government protests for a month now. Opposing them are the yellow shirts, a collection of royalists, businessmen, and the urban middle class.

IN PICTURES: Top 10 unusual protests

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On Monday, Vasan's coffin was paraded in the back of the pickup along the nearby highway, both as a mark of respect and to score political points.

Ms. Charoen says she has yet to decide a date for Vasan’s cremation. Instead, she prefers to wait until the red shirts succeed in their campaign to force the government to call new elections. “I ask everyone to fight on. My son has already died. Nothing will happen unless people fight on,” she says.

Thailand’s political turmoil has exposed deep divisions in a fearful society caught between dueling, color-coded forces. In death, as in life, those divisions are on sharp display. Funeral ceremonies for the slain red shirts, who draw support from rural and working-class voters, are a sea of red, not the customary black. Eulogies are spliced with political speeches and fund-raising for more protests.

For the dead and injured soldiers, there is a different support network. Last week, Queen Sirikit, wife of Thailand’s revered monarch, made a televised visit to military hospital wards. Together with Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, she attended the funeral of an Army colonel who once served as her bodyguard.

The palace has also announced its own compensation scheme that is open to all victims. The government said Tuesday it had allocated money for a similar scheme with a sliding scale of payouts.

Self reliance

But in Bang Poo and other factory towns outside Bangkok, red shirts are taking care of their own. Local politicians, red-shirt organizers and community radio stations are paying for hospital and funeral costs, in thinly disguised competition with official channels of assistance.

At a public hospital, Kowit Winet props himself up in bed, wincing from a gunshot wound in his chest. As the TV cameras roll, the wife of a local politician hands him an envelope with $310 inside and wishes him a speedy recovery. Doctors say that could take two more months.

Mr. Kowit, a truck driver who traveled daily to Bangkok to join the rallies, says he had gone to the front line on April 10 after a protest leader called for reinforcements. He heard the crack of gunfire but wasn’t sure from which side. Suddenly he was hit.

“We are so many people, and we don’t have any weapons. I didn’t think they would hurt us,” he says.

He fills out a form for Vorapawat Poomnimitra, a local lawyer for the opposition Pua Thai party, who plans to sue the government on behalf of the victims. Mr. Vorapawat, who runs a radio station that funnels protesters and meals to the rallies, says four local men died in the clashes.

“The families are proud of what they did. They were asking for democracy,” he says.

Opposition payouts

These families stand to receive nearly $4,000 from the party and other sources – far more than the $1,500 pledged on behalf of the king and queen. Vorapawat says no disrespect is intended. But other red shirts are critical of Queen Sirikit’s high-profile support for troops and to her appearance at the 2008 funeral of a rival yellow-shirted protester who died during a clash with police.

Panuwach Roongmorakot, a university lecturer in psychology and an opposition supporter, likens the situation to a mother who has two squabbling sons. If they fight, she shouldn’t take sides, he argues. “We are human. We have human feelings,” he says.

Not all opposition supporters feel so strongly. On Tuesday, several of the injured arrived at the Bureau of the Royal Household, located inside an ornate 18th century royal palace in Bangkok, to seek compensation. Each was examined by a doctor and given money to cover their medical costs. Of the dead, 17 families had so far applied for the $1,500 payout, said a bureau official.

To receive the payment, each applicant is required to bow before an altar of oil portraits of the King and Queen, before taking their envelope from a golden bowl. One protester who had been shot in the leg had to perform the ritual on crutches. He hobbled away with $310.

Back at the temple, Charoen says her son had been injured before in a knife fight with a pro-government protester. On the morning of April 10, he told her he was going to Bangkok and said if he died she should wear red in his memory. She later heard of his death on a radio broadcast.

Many Thais have seen Vasan’s death, which was captured on film. A skinny man in a red T-shirt, he carries a flag along a darkened street, before being cut down with a single shot to the head. No shooter is visible in the frame. The military has said its troops fired in self-defense and accused shadowy gunmen on the red-shirt side of fomenting the violence. The government has promised an investigation.

IN PICTURES: Top 10 unusual protests

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