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Whose to blame?

By David Swartzentruber
AseanAffairs   9 July 2010

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In a story that came out today, wire services reported the release of a report by Reporters Without Borders on the street protest violence that went down in Bangkok May 19.

The journalists group condemned both sides of the event, the Thai army and the red shirt protesters, in which 90 lives were wiped out. Among the killed were Italian freelance photographer Fabio Polenghi and Japanese cameraman Hiroyuki Muramoto. In addition, 10 other journalists were injured in the melee, some of them severely.

The report, “Thailand: Licence to Kill, ” stated, “They (the army) did not try to prevent journalists from covering the events, but the rules of engagement and the lack of professionalism on the part of the soldiers led to serious incidents that could have been avoided.”

But the report also censured the red shirts, saying that they “deliberately exposed Thai and foreign journalists to mortal danger. It called for any red shirt leaders found responsible for violence against the press, as well as troops that fired on properly identified members of the media, to be punished.”

My personal and professional view of the event (I was there) is that the protesters should never have been allowed to move from their original site at an out-of the-way bridge to the center of Bangkok.

The police and soldiers at the Phan Fa Bridge site wished them well as they moved to occupy the Rajaparasong site in the heart of Bangkok’s top shopping center.

The Thai government was much too lenient and uncertain toward the red shirts and by its own admission, had “underestimated” the strength, organization and determination of the red shirts.

In addition, the whole weight of controlling the red shirts fell on the Thai army with the police force playing a subordinate role and a renegade general directing the black shirt security force backing up the red shirts.

The protest ordeal resulting in the loss of life could have been anticipated with the government failing to take effective action at an early stage of the protest.

It was not until May 19 (the day the army moved in) that the head of the Thai forces, General Anupong, signed the order to use force to remove the red shirts.

By that time, the red shirts had already taken innocent human lives by the use of rocket-propelled grenades and had developed their strategy to counterattack the army as well as the plan for arson attacks on private and government buildings.

Thailand now moves on toward reconciliation and reform to address the “double standard” issues that motivated the protesters.

The outcome of that process is less certain than the certainty that violence would occur once the red shirts occupied an area in central Bangkok for so long a time.

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