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December 13, 2012

Former Thai PM Pleads Not Guilty to Murder Charges

by Ron Corben

Thailand's former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has been interrogated by Justice Ministry special investigation officers. He is charged in the death of a taxi driver by security forces when in power during the 2010 crackdown against anti-government protesters. The case, in which Abhisit has pleaded not guilty, further highlights deep political divisions in the country.
 
Both Abhisit and his former party's leader Suthep Thaugsuban said they are ready to face the courts.
 
Opposition supporters allege the charges are part of efforts to pressure Abhisit to accept a general amnesty for the death and injury toll from the clashes that left more than 90 people dead and hundreds injured in April and May of 2010.
 
But according to Panitan Wattanayagorn, a former spokesman during the Abhisit government, the governing Pheu Thai Party backers have welcomed the legal moves.
 
“The Pheu Thai supporters wanted the past administrator to be prosecuted and they are very happy in the end are now moving forward. They [Pheu Thai politicians] also have their own cases in court and they also have to fight charges also," said Panitan. "By the same issue they feel the opposite [to the Abhisit supporters].”

Analysts said the legal moves appear to be part of efforts to reach agreement through a general amnesty to enable another former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, back into Thailand.
 
Thaksin has backing from the largely urban working class and in rural areas and is supported by the so-called Red Shirts movement.
 
He remains overseas to avoid a two-year jail sentence for corruption but maintains a regular presence in the Thai media and is a close adviser to the current prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, his younger sister.
 
Opposing Thaksin has been the urban elite and close supporters of the Thai monarchy.
 
“My initial reaction was that this was a little bit of revenge, possibly pushed by the Red Shirts, who really smarted a lot about the way Abhisit had them branded as terrorists," said Chris Baker, a long-time author and commentator on Thai politics and business. "But rumors that there is some kind of bargaining going on in the background all the time to find a position where they can negotiate somehow for Thaksin’s return and all of this can be part of this.”
 
Efforts at reconciliation between the competing power groups have failed to bridge the gap, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist from Chulalongkorn University. But Thitinan said the filing of charges against Abhisit marks a new threshold in Thai politics.
 
“This is a threshold being crossed with the charges against Abhisit and Suthep. Normally, Thai government leaders would not be charged for having cracked down on protesters," said Thitinan. "So the sense of impunity, invincibility, is being challenged here and it sets a precedent.”
 
Analysts expect the legal process in the case of the former prime minister to be drawn out before a final verdict amid the on-going legal battles over the events of April and May 2010. Meanwhile several Red Shirt activists remain in prison, with others rallying outside the court calling for justice in the deaths of protesters during the crackdown.