Thailand's opposition 'red shirts' commemorate deadly crackdown as elections loom

Thailand's 'red shirts' have a strong base, analysts say the parliamentary election may hinge on the mood among nonpartisan voters, as well as local dynamics.

Damir Sagolj/Reuters
Anti-government ''red shirt'' protesters wear hats with pictures of toppled Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra as they pray during a rally at Ratchaprasong intersection at Bangkok's shopping district May 19. Thousands of "red shirt" protesters staged a rally on Thursday to mark the one-year anniversary of Thailand's worst political violence that ended on May 19 last year.

Thousands of opposition supporters in their trademark red shirts rallied Thursday in the Thai capital to mark the anniversary of a military crackdown on chaotic protests that left 92 dead. The rally was among the largest held in recent months and comes as Thai political parties kick off their campaigns for closely watched parliamentary elections on July 3.

While hundreds of demonstrators were detained in the aftermath of last year's protests, legal investigations into the killings have stalled and no state official has faced charges for their role in the worst political violence in a generation here.

Thursday's rally took place at a downtown junction that was occupied for several weeks last year in a failed bid to force snap elections. Supporters lit candles to commemorate their dead, while relatives of those slain held aloft gilt-framed photos of their loved ones. A banner draped over an elevated train platform above the stage read "Peaceful Protesters, Not Terrorists."

“I want to fight for the people who died,” says Chalermkiat Aramvibul, a high-school student who joined his parents at the rally.

Supporters cheered loudly at the name of Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted former prime minister who remains a polarizing force in Thai politics. His younger sister, a businesswoman who has never held public office, was named this week to head the opposition Pua Thai Party (PTP).

Its main rival is the Democrat Party led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who took power in 2008 after the controversial dismissal of a pro-Thaksin government and has struggled to rule a divided nation. He is campaigning on his record of steering the economy out of recession and has accused his opponents of seeking to widen Thailand's social divisions. PTP leaders have promised an amnesty for banned politicians as a path to reconciliation.

While the red shirts have built a strong base that helps the PTP, analysts say the election may hinge on the mood among nonpartisan voters, as well as local dynamics in constituency contests. A large number of voters have not picked a party, according to recent polls, and may be turned off by the partisan style of color-coded street protests.

“The undecideds are a very important voice right now,” says Kan Yuenyong, an independent political analyst in Bangkok.

Thida Thavornset, a red-shirt leader whose husband was jailed last year for his role in the protests, said the movement would hold more rallies during the election campaign, but that leaders running for parliament wouldn't appear on stage. She denied that the group was an adjunct to the PTP's campaign. “We have our own strategy,” she says.

Human rights groups say pockets of armed red-shirt militants should bear some of the blame for last year's violence, though they argue that this doesn't absolve the military for using excessive force. Army snipers in highrise towers are accused of firing on unarmed protesters, as well as reporters and medics. Military spokesmen have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Last year, arson attacks on several prominent buildings were blamed on retreating red shirt mobs, adding to the sour aftertaste for Bangkok residents appalled by the disruption of daily life. The group's leaders have denied responsibility for arson attacks and alleged that the military torched the buildings in order to justify their brutal assault. One of the torched buildings, a giant shopping mall next to Thursday's rally site, is currently hidden behind a giant Toyota Prius advertisement.

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