- - Thursday, May 19, 2011

BANGKOK — One year after troops crushed a nine-week insurrection, the Thai government and pro-democracy activists remain polarized, with each demanding prison sentences for the other’s leaders while preparing for a nationwide election.

At least 15,000 Red Shirt activists gathered Thursday in the heart of Bangkok to mark the one-year anniversary of the quashed rebellion. Last year they had occupied the square in makeshift barricades, bringing the commercial district to a standstill.

Lined with five-star hotels, shopping malls and condominiums, the Ratchaprasong intersection was where many people were killed and injured during the uprising. In all, 91 people were killed and 2,000 wounded during the nine-week protest.

Today, the Red Shirts continue to demand a reversal of the military’s 2006 bloodless coup that toppled then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The Reds, officially known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), also want current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who took office in December 2008, to stand trial for his role in the April and May 2010 crackdown on the insurrection.

Mr. Abhisit and the military are keeping more than 130 Red Shirts in jail on charges that include arson, slander and terrorism linked to the insurrection and its aftermath.

Imprisoned Red Shirts awaiting trial include former Puea Thai Party parliamentarian Jatuporn Prompan, one of the group’s most charismatic and loquacious leaders.

Both sides insist on punishment.

Asked in a recent interview if the Reds want Mr. Abhisit to stand trial, Weng Tojirakarn, a “core leader” of the Reds, replied: “Yes, we would like to have justice and a scientific investigation about what happened during April and May.

“There must be charges,” said Mr. Weng whose wife, Thida Thavornseth, currently heads the UDD.

“In order for the soldier to pull the trigger of the gun, there must be someone who orders. So the prime minister is the one who is at that post and decided to order the soldier to pull the trigger of the gun,” Mr. Weng said.

Other “top-level people” also should be put on trial, he said.

Meanwhile, the New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch has called for justice in the fatal shooting of several people during the government’s crackdown. The group says the fatal shooting of a nurse at a Buddhist temple complex most likely was carried out by soldiers; a preliminary report by the government’s Department of Special Investigations (DSI) — Thailand’s equivalent of the FBI, says the same thing.

But one year later, nobody has been charged in the nurse’s death, the Associated Press reported. Cases such as this — and the fact that only government opponents have so far faced prosecution — have strengthened a sense that justice in Thailand is one-sided, a malleable tool favoring the Bangkok-based elite over the powerless, mostly rural poor.

Though life in cosmopolitan Bangkok returned to normal long ago, the societal divide between the hives and have-nots that transformed its streets into a battleground last year remains wide.

Some fear the rift could spark new violence as the country — a Buddhist-majority, non-NATO U.S. military ally — heads toward July 3 elections.

The vote will be fiercely contested and closely watched by an anxious military that has staged 18 coups in the past century.

The election pits Mr. Abhisit’s Democratic Party and coalition partners in a tight race against Thaksin’s opposition Puea Thai Party, or Party for Thais.

Thaksin is unable to run as a candidate because he is an international fugitive dodging a two-year prison sentence for a corrupt real estate deal during his five-year administration.

He recently appointed his younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, as his party’s leader to attempt to become Thailand’s first female prime minister, even though she has no political experience.

Born in 1967, Mrs. Yingluck was a chief executive in the family’s telecommunications and real estate businesses, and earned a master’s degree in public administration from Kentucky State University.

Critics of her appointment said Thaksin was concerned only with arranging his return to Thailand and reclaiming $2 billion in seized assets.

The Puea Thai Party indicated that it would try to arrange an “amnesty” for Thaksin if his sister forms a new coalition government.

That move could result in future confrontation by Thaksin’s opponents within the military and other sectors of society.

Thaksin described his sister as his obedient “clone” and said if they form a government, they would not take revenge against their opponents and instead would muzzle Reds who demand a systematic revolution.

Thaksin said his party would create megaprojects, including land reclamation, flood management and improved rail service.

His critics, however, want him to stand trial for his presumed role in the killing of more than 2,000 people during his administration’s “war on drugs.”

The Oxford-educated Mr. Abhisit, meanwhile, is trying to shake a widespread perception that he is a puppet of the military which has staged 18 coups and attempted coups since the 1930s, though its generals now deny plotting another putsch.

The military supports Mr. Abhisit, who is allowing generals a relatively free hand in procuring expensive and controversial weapons contracts.

Some Thai analysts expressed fear that the military may step in before the election to block a possible victory by Thaksin’s candidates, or intervene after the polls if his party succeeds in forming a government.

“Under the present political circumstances, I can say that those who plan a coup are the most stupid of fools, and they are committing suicide,” said retired army commander-in-chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, who led the 2006 coup against Thaksin.

“My remarks are only for today though,” he told the Bangkok Post, describing his widely condemned coup as altruistic.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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