Thailand reflects on a decade of change after its Black May uprising

Ten years after Thailand’s military shocked the world by firing on thousands of unarmed protestors rallying against its usurpation of power, the country is reflecting on the days that tragically marked a coming-of-age for national democracy.

Civil society groups have organised various talks and exhibitions to commemorate uprising’s anniversary, which will culminate with a candlelight vigil May 19 at the capital’s Democracy Monument, one of the sites of the bloodshed that transformed the nation.

"Before May 1992, we elected politicians and we gave them a mandate to run the country," said Narimon Thabchumpon, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University who was then working for one of the uprising’s organisers, the Campaign for Popular Democracy.

"But May 1992 proved that you cannot allow your representatives to do what they want… Now even though we elect politicians, we continue to participate in the decision-making process."

From May 17 to 20, some 44 people were killed and 37 went missing — those are the government’s official figures — as thousands protested the appointment of unelected General Suchinda Kraprayoon as premier.

Officials said there were 3,780 injured, but NGO groups said the injury toll topped 5,300.

Armed forces commander Suchinda had been the driving force behind a bloodless military coup against then-Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan on February 23, 1991. It was Thailand’s tenth military coup since the country shifted from an absolute to constitutional monarchy in 1932.

Elections were held in March 1992, and although they were won by a pro-military coalition, the people were not going to tolerate an unelected premier.

A rally on May 8 at Sanam Luang park saw an estimated 150,000 people assemble peacefully, led by former Bangkok governor — and former military officer — Chamlong Srimuang to demand Suchinda’s resignation.

The protests were called off when the government agreed to amend the constitution to bar non-elected people from becoming premier, but when the government revealed the change would not affect Suchinda, the demonstrations swelled again.

Up to 200,000 people are estimated to have returned to Sanam Luang on May 17, but thousands were blocked from marching on Government House.

Journalist Mukdawan Sakboon reported for the English-language Nation newspaper on what she calls "the most important event in our modern political history".

"People kept calling The Nation asking what was happening, and should they join the protesting," Mukdawan said.

"They couldn’t know what was happening by turning on their TVs," she said, referring to the fact all five television stations were state-controlled.

Early on the morning of May 18 the troops opened fire for the first time, killing around 10 people, according to news reports at the time.

Thousands remained on the streets, and repeated bloody clashes over the next two days left scores more dead.

The chaos was dramatically brought to a halt on May 20, when Suchinda and Chamlong appeared on television before Thailand’s highly revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who made a rare intervention to order the two to work together.

The scene of the two leaders sitting humbly on the floor before the seated King was an enduring image beamed around the globe, and a turning point for democracy in Thailand.

Suchinda announced his resignation several days later, having first made an irreversible executive decree that granted amnesty to himself and his associates that lasts even today.

Still, Suchinda leaves the country each May to avoid protestors who picket outside his home, and this year has headed to China during the anniversary.

Meanwhile the relatives of the dead and missing are still fighting for justice, says Audl Khiewborriboon, chairman of the Relatives Committee of May 1992.

The committee continues to call on the government to take responsibility for "the spirit" of the May 1992 events, to resolve the missing persons issue before paying reparations to victims, and to build a monument to the dead.

Last September, the current administration of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra set up an independent committee charged with resolving the "missing persons" issue and making reparations.

"We will honour their decision. We trust in this committee, we believe in this committee," Audl said.

It was the sheer scale of the protest that lingers in the minds of the military today, says Kaisak Choonhavan, a senator and son of ousted premier Chatichai.

"The alliance was so wide. It included ex-student activists of the 70s, NGOs of the 90s, slum dwellers, the political middle-class — in general all supporters of the democratic system in Thailand were against any further manipulation of Thai politics by the military," he said.

It was this alliance that smoothed the path towards democratic reform in Thailand, leading directly to a stronger civil society and creation of the 1997 constitution, Thailand’s sixteenth charter but the first decreed by a civilian government.

"The most important outcome of May 1992 was the spirit to launch a new constitution," said Ukrist Pathmanand, the assistant director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Asian Studies.

"This is a constitution for the people. Many of the articles are there to protect human rights, a free press, to allow the close scrutiny of politicians."

It is a document likely to be around longer than its predecessors, according to Chulalongkorn’s Narimon.

"In Thailand in the past, if you wanted to change the constitution you could hold a coup and write a new one. But now that would be very difficult."

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