Phayao Akhad’s hands were shaking with nerves as she dialled her daughter’s number. But after what felt like an eternity of anxious ringing, a man answered on the other end of the line instead of her eldest child, Kamolkade.
“Hello?” the man said.
Little did Phayao know, but the man at the end of the other line was in a temple besieged by state security forces.
“Where’s Kade?” Phayao asked.
“She got shot,” he said.
Phayao questioned back with hope lingering in her voice, ‘‘Is she hurt badly, has she been sent to the hospital?”
Despair began to vibrate through the line and confusion took hold. There was a long pause. The man started to weep into the phone. After a few seconds, he built up enough strength to reply with the truth.
Ten years later
Ten years later, speaking from her roadside coffee shop in eastern Bangkok, Phayao, now a rights activist, said that she’s still grappling with what happened that day.
One question lingers for her: why was her daughter shot by military soldiers?
With tears swelling in her eyes, she recalled that fateful day ten years ago: May 19th, 2010.
(For more: Please read our Oral History of the Red Shirt Protest)
Red-shirt demonstrators had occupied large sections of the city, demanding that prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva step down, dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections. But after around two months of a tense and a sometimes violent standoff, Abhisit sent in the troops.
Within hours, military forces mobilised to disperse the tens of thousands of civilians controlling much of the capital. Once the military arrived, clashes between protestors and troops inevitably ensued. By the end of the day, over 2,000 people were injured and 94 were killed, mostly civilians.
“I never received justice,” she said.
Phayao said that all subsequent governments, including that of Yingluck Shinawatra, made no genuine attempt to pursue justice for those who died. She blames everyone involved.
“This is something that I would never be okay with,” she said, adding that she is alone in her search for answers. “It made me think in this struggle, that I’m the only one who will find justice for my daughter.”
But finding justice for her slain daughter has proven more difficult than she could have imagined. She says that authorities have systematically attempted to keep her from finding the truth.
Kade wasn’t a particularly political person. She didn’t align herself to political sides. She wanted to help people, to use her medical background to provide medical assistance to whoever needed it.
In high-school, she volunteered at local charities. After the 2004 tsunami, she travelled to the south to offer aid. But her dream was to join the military so that she could serve those affected by the conflict in the deep south.
So when demonstrations started turning violent, she decided to join a group of paramedics. Days later, she found herself dispatched to Wat Pathum near the centre of the demonstrations and the heart of the conflict zone.
The temple was supposedly a safe zone, a shelter to bring the injured. But as protestors and journalists were taking refuge inside, bullets began raining down from above. Within seconds, some successfully scrambled to cover, while others were hit with live ammunition from the troops set up on the sky train rail tracks overlooking the temple, according to witnesses at the scene. Kade fearlessly rushed out into the open and began applying pressure to the wounds of the injured.
Andrew Buncombe, a journalist who was at the temple that day recalls the confusion moments before Kade personally bandaged him up after being wounded himself.
“There were countless people with wounds, but the medics – who had set up a pharmacy and emergency clinic amid the temple’s lush, exotic foliage could have done no more,” he wrote in 2010.
“Precisely which positions the firing was coming from was unclear and why the troops would be shooting so widely, with so little caution, was unclear. Was it coming from snipers or from the regular troops? It seems almost certain it was coming from the troops. And who within the chain of command was ordering troops to fire so recklessly, so close to so many people, the vast overwhelming majority of whom were unarmed, unthreatening,” he recalled.
Those questions still haven’t been answered. Despite the fact that Kade was wearing a nurse uniform emblazoned with a large visible red cross, she was shot.
Phayao remembers her daughter telling her that she would be safe during the protests, that her red nurses cross would grant her some immunity from the violence.
“She pleaded with me,” recalls Phayao. She said, “Mom trust me, this red cross will protect me. It will keep me safe.’”
Six people were killed inside the temple grounds including Kade.
“She was killed after the [red shirt] leaders turned themselves in. The military officers said they had taken control by 4 pm,” Phayao said.
“At that point, the military said everything was under their control. But my daughter was killed at 6 pm. So what is their excuse? How do they explain this?” she said.
“The courts say there were no ‘men in black,’ she said, referring to the unnamed agent provocateurs accused by government and protesters alike of conducting and catalyzing violence.
And the autopsy said there were only five bullets in her body, but she was shot 11 times,” she said, slightly raising her voice.
“This is their lie.”
Since that day, Phayao has been tirelessly looking for the truth. She claims that she has been repeatedly lied to about who gave the order. Despite a leaked report to Reuters indicating that the military played a significant role in civilian deaths, specifically at Wat Pathum, the military denies responsibility for killing her daughter, she said.
Phayao said that they often blame Kade’s death either on an accident, or that she was shot by the “men in black.”
But the justice system failed her, she said. She genuinely believes that powerful figures within the government are intentionally covering up the investigation to dodge responsibility.
The investigation has been in shambles from the beginning, Phayao said.
In 2010, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) began investigating the Wat Pathum temple shootings, but last year, it was dismissed citing a lack of witnesses. Phayao insists that sufficient evidence exists, such as numerous witnesses, video recordings, photos, and military-issued bullet casings found at the scene which she says prove that soldiers carried out the attack.
“The Thai military holds itself above being questioned and has never been held to account for its violence,” says Tyrell Haberkorn, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and expert on dissident politics in Southeast Asia.
She added that “investigations are often conducted, facts are assembled, but then they are filed away and no action is taken.”
Haborkorn explained that although state crimes are easily visible, impunity persists in a system designed to ensure cases will not make it to court.
“Even if victims and families of victims force the truth out into the open…The laws are then reinforced by the history of impunity and the unwillingness of the police and judiciary to take a stand against the military,” she said.
“As soon as one begins to advocate for justice and accountability, or even just the truth, in cases of state violence against dissidents, one immediately becomes a dissident in the eyes of the state as well.”
But now Phayao faces oppression herself. She says that shadowy figures have begun a campaign to silence her. Since the coup in 2014, she has become a target of intimidation and harassment.
“I’m not afraid,” she said about threats.
“They can come to my house, they can come to intimidate me, they can tap my phone, they can follow me everywhere. They want us to stop, they really want us to stop fighting,” she said.
“There are only two choices in this struggle,” Phayo said, glancing at her eldest son who looked up from his phone at the side of the coffee shop. “Either I die, or I go to jail.”
Phayao and her son, Nattapat, are allegedly on a blacklist for being politically threatening.
Thai Enquirer was unable to verify the existence of such a blacklist, but they said being on this list has destabilized their lives.
“Whenever protests or political events occur, I receive strange phone calls or someone would come visit me in person telling me not to attend the events,” she said.
Phayao’s eldest son, Nattapat, has also been advocating for justice for Kade. He told Thai Enquirer that there have been consequences for being outspoken.
“I’ve been detained countless times, I can’t even count how many times,” Nattapat said. He said most of the arrests occurred after the 2014 coup when his name was placed on the alleged blacklist. He explained that the majority of the military leaders who currently control the country were in power when his sister was killed, so he believes it’s only logical that they want to keep him silent.
Immediately following the 2014 coup, he was thrown into an unmarked van, blindfolded, and taken to a black site where he was questioned and kept for seven days in solitary confinement.
“I thought, if they’re going to make me disappear then there’s nothing I can do. So I tried to let it out of my mind,” Nattapat said recalling the moment he was forced into the van. “The cell was one by two meters large. Inside there was just an open drain pipe for a toilet. We were given two buckets of water to use. The conditions were horrible,” he explained, adding that the cells were partially outdoors and exposed to rain and the elements. “It was like a mini-torture, it was impossible to rest.”
He was released without explanation after seven days. Since the abduction, Nattapat and his family have been visited by plainclothes officers countless times over the years, he said.
“They are also experts at enforced disappearance,” Phayao added. “So we have to be careful and every time we go somewhere, we have to announce it to the public. We let people know that if anything that happens to me, it’s the military behind it,” she said.
Since 2003, at least 62 community-based rights defenders have been killed in Thailand, according to Protection International, an NGO that supports environmentalists and human rights defenders. The United Nations says there have been at least 90 cases of enforced disappearance in the country since 1980.
But Phayao is just one of hundreds of female human rights defenders who are routinely met with oppression for their work.
In 2019, Phayao was awarded as Outstanding Women Human Rights Defender by Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission for shedding light on human rights violations and for her commitment to justice in the face of state resistance.
“It’s important for us to see how women play a critical role in defending rights in their communities,” says Pranom Somwong, Thailand representative for Protection International. “But it’s often invisible. It’s frequently the wives, mothers or sisters who are in pursuit of justice for their lost loved ones. Not only to defend themselves, but they campaign against injustice for the men in their lives too.”
Some say the family’s case is emblematic of the culture of impunity that manifests throughout the Thai justice system and military. Rights researchers say that women human rights defenders (WHRDS) are more vulnerable to state suppression and violations of their rights for standing up to those in power.
Phayao and Nattapat hope that Kade’s case will help set a new precedent in the justice system. They hold on to hope that the impunity will one day end.
“That’s why we still continue to fight for justice. So we can set new norms, so that when things like this happen to people they’re never forgotten,” Nattapat said.