BANGKOK (Reuters) - About 40,000 red-shirted, anti-government protesters gathered on Sunday in Bangkok’s old quarter to mark the first anniversary of clashes with the military in which 26 people were killed and over 800 wounded.
“We are mourning the loss of innocent lives a year ago. We are remembering the violence against Thai people last year. We are asking for justice,” said protest leader Nattawut Saikua.
No one has been declared responsible for the unrest on April 10, when soldiers fought thousands of protesters in the narrow streets around Democracy Monument in Thailand’s worst political violence in 18 years.
The red-shirted supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist billionaire ousted in a 2006 coup and convicted of graft, said they would continue to hold protests until the government took responsibility for the violence.
“They won’t give up until Thailand has justice,” Thaksin said of the families of the dead and wounded, in an address by video link from abroad, where he is living to avoid jail.
Five soldiers and 21 civilians were killed, including Reuters television cameraman Hiro Muramoto, a 43-year-old Japanese national, on April 10 last year.
Witnesses reported seeing flashes of gunfire from troops but the government blamed civilian deaths on shadowy, unidentified black-clad gunmen who were filmed in the area.
“Today we pay tribute to Hiro’s life but remain discouraged that the circumstances of his death are still unknown a year later. Hiro’s family and Reuters colleagues deserve to know how this tragedy occurred and who was behind it,” said Stephen Adler, Reuters editor-in-chief.
Police concluded on March 24 they had no evidence to indicate troops killed Muramoto, a reversal of preliminary findings by Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI) that a soldier may have fired the fatal bullet.
The turnout was among the largest by the red shirts since their 10-week occupation of parts of Bangkok last year sparked violent clashes in April and May that killed 91 people, wounded more than 1,800 and led to widespread arson.
“I was here last year. I never thought I would see this kind of cruelty in Thailand. I came back today because no one has been put in jail for it,” said one protester, 38-year-old electrician Samart Ngamwongyai.
Streets were festooned with red-and-white banners bearing red-shirt slogans such as “fight for democracy” and “truth today”. One read: “You can’t kill us all.” Another said: “If Democracy wins in Tunisia and Egypt, we can win here.”
“We are here to pay tribute to our heroes in heaven. Rest in peace. You helped us move one step closer to democracy. We will carry on your fight. Please clap until heaven can hear us,” Payap Panket, a red shirt leader, said on stage to loud cheers.
One person wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the red dot of the Japanese flag, his face painted white with the name “Hiroyuki” written across his forehead in black. He held a placard reading “Who killed Hiroyuki?”, one of several references and tributes to the slain Reuters cameraman.
About 2,100 police were deployed to the area.
The mostly rural and urban poor United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, or the red shirts, took to the streets on March 12 last year demanding elections in festive rallies that descended into violence on April 10.
On that night, soldiers failed in repeated attempts to dislodge the protesters from the area, firing tear gas and rubber bullets before coming under attack with grenades and responding with live ammunition.
The government said they used live fire only in self-defence and denied soldiers were responsible for any deaths or injuries.
Relatives of some of the dead and wounded have filed civil lawsuits against three state agencies. The government has also faced intense diplomatic pressure from Japan to identify who fired the bullet that killed Muramoto.
The red shirts accuse Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of lacking a popular mandate and coming to power illegitimately, heading a coalition the military cobbled together after courts dissolved a pro-Thaksin party that led the previous government.
Abhisit, backed by the royalist establishment, says he was voted into office by the same parliament that picked his Thaksin-allied predecessors. His party plans to hold an election around the middle of this year.
The poll is expected to be a close contest between Abhisit’s ruling Democrats and the red shirts’ parliamentary allies, the Puea Thai Party, and the outcome may be rejected by supporters of either party, fuelling instability.
Editing by Miral Fahmy and Tim Pearce