BANGKOK (Reuters) - A 30-metre (98-ft) corrugated iron wall masks the remnants of a mysterious arson attack a year ago on Southeast Asia’s second-biggest shopping mall, a reminder of Thailand’s struggle to tame a crisis many fear could turn violent again during elections.
Despite an official investigation, it remains unclear who started the massive fire on May 19, 2010, a day when the military used force to break up an encampment of tens of thousands of red-shirted protesters next to the mall.
It is one of many unanswered questions following clashes between protesters and troops from April 10 to May 19 last year that killed 91 people, wounded more than 1,800 and reduced one of Asia’s most dynamic and bustling cities to chaotic street fighting, smouldering fires and 9 p.m. curfews.
About 15,000 red shirts rallied Thursday near the site of the crackdown, waving flags and holding placards calling for justice for those killed.
The sight of Central World, Thailand’s top shopping plaza, in flames jolted Bangkok’s middle classes, moving some to tears. Many saw it as a final, desperate act of an unruly mob hired by an exiled former premier seeking to wrestle back power.
But the sophistication of the destruction and photographs showing armed men in the building before the fire have raised questions of whether the military-backed government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had a hand in the arson.
“If the red shirts set the fire, it would have been much smaller, since they didn’t have the tools or the expertise,” Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted former prime minister and red shirts’ figurehead, told the local Post Today newspaper.
His sister, Yingluck, leads the opposition Puea Thai Party in an election scheduled for July 3.
With rivalry fierce between Thailand’s political camps, many fear the election results will be contested, or powerful forces might seek to manipulate the formation of a new government, which is widely expected to be a coalition.
The biggest risk, analysts say, is that perceived injustices could ignite another round of instability in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy, one of the region’s most attractive destinations for foreign tourists and investors.
Police probes and a state investigation into the violence are largely inconclusive, and tainted by allegations of political interference, while fact-finding panels have failed to unearth what exactly happened.
The shopping plaza, one of 39 buildings set on fire in last year’s violence, was a perfect target for the disenfranchised red shirts, a protest movement of mostly rural and urban poor who accuse Thailand’s moneyed elite of undermining democracy.
The red shirts were widely blamed for the fire that raged for more than 10 hours in Central World, gutting its “Zen” department store. But conspiracy theories abound over the motives and identity of the arsonists.
Authorities said calls by protest leaders to “burn” Bangkok prove their guilt, and the black outfits worn by the arsonists caught on camera were consistent with shadowy gunmen allied with the red shirts.
But the opposition and its red shirt allies say the arson was elaborately planned by the military and its establishment allies to discredit protesters and win support in Bangkok.
Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer for Thaksin, submitted a petition on January 31 to the International Criminal Court in the Hague accusing the Thai government and military of crimes against humanity during the April-May 2010 suppression of the protests.
A document produced by Amsterdam & Peroff LLP as part of the petition quotes an “Anonymous Witness No. 22” — a statement compiled from what the law firm says is the testimony of several military officers — as saying “a team of arsonists contracted by the army” planted “incendiary devices inside Central World.”
“The operation was planned by the army leadership, with the consent and approval of the government leadership, several weeks in advance of May 19,” it said.
The Thai government denied the allegation.
Internet web boards have also posted images showing the saboteurs’ military-issue boots and their use of walkie-talkies similar to those used by the army. The fact that the mall was set on fire long after the military had seized control of the protest site has not been explained.
A study published this month by New York-based Human Rights Watch blames both sides for last year’s violence, criticising the military for “excessive and unnecessary lethal force” and the red shirts for calls to riot and harbouring black-clad militants who fought the army.
“There’s some legal movement against demonstrators but no honest self examination or holding to account by the authorities and officials involved,” said Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher at London-based Amnesty International. “So far, none of the root causes have been addressed.”
An estimated 800 demonstrators were detained under emergency laws and more than 130 are still held, unable to afford bail averaging 500,000 baht (10,200 pounds). To date, 22 have been convicted of offences while no state officials have faced charges, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee investigating the unrest.
Additional reporting by Ploy Ten Kate; Editing by Jason Szep and Daniel Magnowski