Thai junta chief may testify to agency probing 2010 crackdown

Thai junta chief may testify to agency probing 2010 crackdown

Bangkok (AFP) - Thailand's junta chief Thursday said he is willing to provide testimony about his involvement in a deadly 2010 military crackdown on anti-government protesters in Bangkok that left more than 90 dead.

Prayut Chan-O-Cha, a former army chief who seized power last May, is often described as the architect of the crackdown which ended months of street protests by "Red Shirt" supporters loyal to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, one of the bloodiest chapters in Thailand's recent turbulent history.

Earlier this week the kingdom's anti-graft agency recommended that the two civilian leaders in charge at the time -- former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy Suthep Thaugsuban -- should face an abuse of power investigation for ordering the crackdown.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Prime Minister Prayut said he was willing to submit evidence to the body investigating Abhisit and Suthep.

But he played down the prospect of appearing at an NACC hearing in person.

"I am ready to give information, although some information can be given in the form of documents without me attending," Prayut said.

"Please don't see this as a big issue," he added.

The junta chief then batted away a question over whether the probe against Abhisit and Suthep, both staunch supporters of Thailand's military establishment, might cause "trouble" for the army, gruffly replying: "What trouble?"

- Awkward questions for military -

Prayut has always denied any wrongdoing over the 2010 violence, saying troops were forced to confront armed protesters, many of whom were dressed in black, after months of demonstrations that had paralysed downtown Bangkok.

But the prospect of the current prime minister -- as well as the former top army officer -- appearing in court is likely to revive awkward questions over the role of the military in the bloody episode, which also left parts of commercial Bangkok ablaze.

While some among the Red Shirt demonstrators carried weapons, many academics and human rights investigators say scores of unarmed protesters and bystanders were cut down by soldiers' bullets, including medics and two foreign journalists.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission this week concluded that innocent people were among those killed.

Campaigners accuse rifle-toting soldiers of opening fire from the elevated train tracks that run through downtown Bangkok.

No soldier or military official has been convicted or punished over the crackdown.

The kingdom has been battered by a decade-long political crisis that broadly pits Bangkok's middle class and royalist elites, backed by parts of the military, against rural and working-class voters loyal to Thaksin and his sister Yingluck, who was toppled as premier by Prayut in May.

The country's interventionist military has staged 19 successful or attempted coups since 1932.

Prayut's coup has seen marital law imposed across Thailand with the media muzzled, criticism of the junta forbidden and political gatherings of more than five people banned.

In an indication some restrictions could remain long after martial law is lifted, the country's junta-appointed rubber stamp parliament Thursday unanimously passed a bill restricting public protest during its first reading.

"The main details are that people have to ask permission before gathering," Wallop Tungkananurak, a member of the National Legislative Assembly told AFP.

The law would also keep any protest at least 150 metres (500 feet) away from key government buildings, Wallop added.

Massive street protests have scorched Thailand's political landscape since Thaksin's overthrow in 2006, with state offices frequently besieged or occupied by rival political camps.

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