Beware the 'third hand' in Thai conflict

Beware the 'third hand' in Thai conflict

The use of live ammunition against protesters demanding the resignation of the Prayut Chan-o-cha government is an ominous sign that the protests will escalate into prolonged bloodletting.

On the evening of Aug 16, three anti-government protesters were shot at Din Daeng intersection. While police deny it was them, suspicions among the more hot-headed protesters abound.

The area has become a daily battleground between riot control police and protesters who are campaigning for the ouster of PM Prayut, citing Covid mishandling.

Two male protesters aged 14 and 16 were shot in the shoulder and foot respectively. Another 15-year-old protester is in a coma with a bullet lodged in his skull, according to the medical team at Rajavithi Hospital that recently reported the victim may end up partially paralysed.

Forensic police visited the protest site in the aftermath of the clash, but still haven't declared where the shot that injured the protesters came from.

Bangkok Metropolitan police chief Pol Lt Gen Phukphong Phongpetra told reporters that police were investigating. He denied that riot police fired live ammunition at protesters, saying only rubber bullets were used.

He said there are a "group of people carrying guns" taking part in the rallies.

On Wednesday last week, police invited reporters to watch a police crackdown drill, attempting to show the public that the operation is based on international standards and does not harm protesters' lives.

However, some protesters still blame police for hurting the three young demonstrators.

In Thailand's chaotic protest scene, the emergence of unknown shooters, no matter what side they are on, is always a bad omen that can lead to extreme violence.

Because the gunmen's identity is vague, people can interpret events in many ways, even resorting to conspiracy theories.

This does not just fuel angry and hatred between the parties to a conflict, but the faceless gunman -- often described as "the third hand" -- has been used to justify the use of violence.

The third hand has been a catalyst in deepening political polarisation in Thailand, when victims feel they are not given justice when the shooters are at large and unknown.

As long as there is no clear answer, it's impossible to establish trust among people from different political camps.

This is partly why Thais can't start meaningful political dialogue and have been trapped in endless political turmoil over the last decade, with leaders from each political camp taking turns to take power only to face resistance later.

Indeed, the "third hand" has played a role in Thailand's major political protests for decades, most recently in the 2010 red shirt protests and People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protest, which culminated into the putsch led by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, in 2014.

During these protests, the presence of mysterious gunmen created conditions for governments and protesters alike to escalate violence that led to bloodshed.

Ninety-nine people, including six soldiers, died, and thousands were injured during the state crackdown on red shirt protesters between April and May 2010, under Abhisit Vejjajiva's premiership.

Mr Abhisit's government has never revealed who approved the use of real bullets on civilians and who shot them, searing a traumatised memory for red shirt protesters who are still seeking justice today.

The emergence of "men in black" armed with war weapons during the clash on April 10, 2010, is another unsolved puzzle.

The bloody event showed well-trained men in black shirts shooting at Kok Wua intersection. Six soldiers were killed by the "men in black."

In 2014, five people were arrested and accused of being the so-called men in black. But police complaints against three were dismissed by the Appeal Court.

One case was dismissed by the Supreme Court in February. Another man, charged with processing weapons, decided not to appeal.

Meanwhile, at least 22 people were killed and around 750 people injured in a series of clashes between PDRC protesters and riot police in early 2014 under the premiership of Yingluck Shinawatra. At least four cases of protest deaths were taken to court, but no gunmen arrested.

The Gen Prayut government must avoid taking the same path if it wants to avoid such losses which only deepen the chasms in Thai society.

They must address the recent three shootings in Din Daeng and find the culprits as quickly as possible.

Though no one has died, it is not surprising to hear that real bullets are flying at protests again.

Paritta Wangkiat

Columnist

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

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