Thai Government Report Reveals Thai Military Brutality in May Pro-Democracy Massacre

by Phairath Khampha

30 June 2000

A largely-uncensored version of the May 1992 pro-democracy investigation report released by the Thai government on June 22, 2000 yielded a more brutal picture of the military's clampdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. The report by the Pichit Kulavanijaya committee had been released earlier with heavy censorship. Sensitive parts regarding military operations had been blacked out. Following a public outcry, the Defence Ministry released the report again with much less censorship.

Some of the most explicit information concerns testimonies by Maj Gen Thitipong Jennuwat, former commander of the First Infantry Division. He admitted being at the scene of one of the shooting incidents at which dozens in the one incident alone were killed. According to Thitipong, soldiers in civilian clothing pretending to be protesters hijacked buses and seized control of an oil truck on the night of May 18, one day after the first outbreak of violence. He said troops had to open fire as they tried to send burning vehicles crashing through defensive lines near the Public Relations Department.

"It was impossible for soldiers to continue resorting to peaceful measures. The fire from the burning vehicles could have spread to public properties. We opened fire, aiming mainly at the vehicles. No more than 40 people were killed in that volley. Hundreds were injured," he said.

Thitipong told the investigating committee the First Infantry Division was not involved in the shooting. The term "we" in his statement is understood to mean soldiers in general.

"We acted in self-defence and there was no other choice. Some people could have been killed by deflecting bullets. To me, it was worth it. No human being could have responded in another way to this kind of situation."

But another witness recalled Thitipong's aggression differently. Pol Maj Gen Uthai Asavavilai, former assistant commissioner of the Central Investigation Bureau, visited the Royal Hotel before dawn on May 19. Troops had raided the hotel, which, hours earlier, had been a sanctuary of disarrayed and wounded protesters.

"I saw a very depressing scene. The soldiers' acts were ones that you would never imagine would be committed against our compatriots," he said.

"Soldiers grabbed people by the hair and threw them against the counter. The protesters were kicked and stomped on. The soldiers told me the people were pains in the neck and they deserved this. They shot wounded people lying in the lobby waiting for treatment by doctors who had volunteered to come to the scene.''

Uthai said he walked up to Thitipong and warned the military officer the acts were inhumane, and the Thai government's image would suffer if the local and foreign media publicised the incident.

"He wouldn't pay attention. Soldiers continued to step on people lying on the floor or shooting them. Doctors were arrested for trying to treat them," Uthai said. Commenting on the incident, Thitipong said Uthai showed him no respect in front of his military subordinates. He insisted he had to do what his superiors ordered him to.

Col Prasong Boonthanom, Army intelligence officer, told the investigating panel troops started firing at protesters when plains-clothes troops posing rioters commandeered buses and were heading toward them.

"There were a lot of people on the buses' roofs. About 50 metres before the buses reached the barb-wired barricades, soldiers opened fire. Some people fell off the buses. I don't know whether they were hit or they simply fell off or jumped down and tried to flee. It was a commotion and the noise of the guns was very loud. Some people also fell off or jumped from the awning of the Government Lottery Office building," he said.

Lt Gen Chainarong Noonpackdee, First Army Region commander, told the Pichit committee reports about military trucks loaded with dead bodies leaving the Rajadamnoen Avenue were not just rumours.

"It was a military operation, in which the media were given total freedom. Press photographers and cameramen must have caught some action of scores or hundreds of bodies removed from the scene," he said.

"If the military had gotten really tough, the death toll would have been far higher. And random shooting left numerous bullet holes on buildings on the avenue."

An eight-page conclusion of the report made the following points:

- The Suchinda government tried to use only legal means to deal with a potentially explosive political situation. The government's attitude could have been caused by over-confidence in military backing and the majority control in Parliament.

- The Thai government had a get-tough policy, bordering on provocation, toward the press. Subsequent attacks by the media inflamed public resentment against the administration.

- Intelligence work failed completely, resulting in the magnitude of protest being under-estimated. The Capital Peacekeeping Command apparently assumed the anti-government protest involved only "organised mobs", not the middle-class or the people's power.

- Most troops involved in the crackdown had no experience or training to deal with such big protests and rioting demonstrators and blindly followed orders to shoot to kill civilians.

- The government failed to counter "systematic" rumours that fuelled public resentment.

- Some troops were made to believe communists or destructive elements were behind the protest. Lt Gen Thawal Sawangpak, former assistant Army chief, said some soldiers opened fire because they thought protesters were bent on overthrowing the country's political system.

- A third party (now known to be soldiers in civilian clothing) instigated the violence in which government buildings and vehicles were set alight to cause major confusion and further inflame public hatred and create a pretext for the massacre. The report suggested people arrested for setting fire to the Nang Lerng police station were Ramkhamhaeng and Thammasat students.

- The Palang Dharma Party of protest leader Chamlong Srimuang tried to bail out students in police custody. This increased the possibility the Palang Dharma Party was involved in the instigation of violence as in the end the demonstration was not so much about pro-democracy but a political feud between Chamlong and Suchinda and the military.

However, former Palang Dharma leader Chamlong Srimuang, who led the pro-democracy demonstrations against the military-backed Suchinda Kraprayoon government, said it was impossible for demonstrators to break through police checkpoints to reach the Nang Lerng station so whoever set the fires and wreaked havoc had to be from within the police and army lines.

"There was no reason to do it. Moreover, ordinary people wouldn't risk their lives doing such a thing," said Chamlong. He called for the total disclosure of the reports from all three investigative committees so that the results could be compared. He said the Pichit committee probably had received some "distorted" information because the inquiry was lopsided in favour of the military.

Palang Dharma leader Chaiwat Sinsuwong admitted that the party had tried to bail out the student suspects, but insisted that it had done so in good faith.

"We thought they could end up being scapegoats and it looks like they did anyway," he said. "If a sincere attempt to make sure the suspects received fair treatment was interpreted to be malicious, nobody would stick his neck out to help innocent suspects in the future."

Adul, a former Phichit MP, admitted he was behind the mobilisation of some 30 motorcyclists, but denied that they were thugs.

"I wanted the motorcyclists to ride through Rajadamnoen Avenue carrying Thai flags in order to remind both sides in the confrontation that Thais should not kill Thais, and it looks like some army officers remembered see the motocyclists doing just that and twisted the facts to make it appear they were thugs," he said. Adul, a close aide of NAP leader Chavalit Yongchaiyudh at the time, denied having anything to do with hundreds of other motorcyclists who roamed the Bangkok's streets and were said to have had a hand in the rioting.

Adul said that Warrant Officer Metta Temchamnan admitted to asking Adul to pay motorcycle thugs to go on the rampage. Adul said on June 22 that it was Metta who had approached him, offering to "help". Chavalit was one of the anti-government leaders at that time and was being accused by the Suchinda government of trying to change Thailand's political system.

"Metta came to me saying that he had some 30 motorcyclists under his control. He said they would do whatever I wanted. I told him that if they were really willing to help, they should help restore unity by riding through Rajadamnoen with Thai flags," Adul said. However, Metta gave them different instructions.

The report said almost 70,000 bullets were officially withdrawn for the clampdown operation. Of those, 32,720 went to the First Infantry Division, 29,000 to the Ninth Infantry Division, 3,230 to the Second Cavalry Division and 2,600 to special warfare troops. Cartridges collected after the shooting suggested that in fact about 40 times as many bullets were fired into the air and into the crowds.

Colonel Chalermpol Bussayakul, deputy commander of the Second Cavalry Division, also told the panel that a Canadian engineer was hit and killed by a stray bullet at the Wanchat Bridge while troops were facing off with advancing protesters.

"Soldiers tried to drag him away from the scene but he struggled and broke away because he shouted to them he did not trust their intentions. Then a bullet hit him in the head," Chalermpol said.

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