BANGKOK, Thailand -- One year after troops crushed a nine-week insurrection in Bangkok which left 91 people dead and 2,000 injured, the government and rebellious Red Shirts remain polarized, demanding prison sentences for leaders on both sides while preparing for a nationwide election.

To mourn the tragic anniversary, at least 15,000 Red Shirt supporters gathered on Thursday (May 19) in the heart of Bangkok at Ratchaprasong intersection, which they had occupied last year after installing bamboo barricades, makeshift shelters, electricity lines, water supplies, ramshackle restaurants, market stalls and other extensive infrastructure.

The intersection, flanked by five-star hotels, lavish shopping malls and expensive condominiums, was where many of the 91 mostly civilian deaths occurred when U.S.-trained troops used armored personnel carriers and snipers to storm the barricades.

Today, the Red Shirts continue to demand a reversal of the military's bloodless 2006 coup which toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, after he won three elections.

The Reds, officially known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), also want current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who took office in December 2008, to stand trial for his role during the April and May 2010 crackdown against the insurrection.

Mr. Abhisit and the military are keeping more than 130 Red Shirts in jail on charges which include arson, slander, and terrorism linked to the insurrection and its divisive aftermath.

Red Shirts imprisoned, pending trial, include one of their most charismatic and loquacious leaders, former Puea Thai Party parliamentarian Jatuporn Prompan.

Both sides insist on punishment.

Asked in a recent interview if the Reds wanted Prime Minister Abhisit to be put on trial, Weng Tojirakarn, one "core leader" of the Reds, replied: "Yes, we would like to have justice and a scientific investigation about what happened during April and May.

"There must be charges," said Mr. Weng whose wife, Thida Thavornseth, currently heads the UDD.

"In order for the soldier to pull the trigger of the gun, there must be someone who orders. So the prime minister is the one who is at that post, and decided to order the soldier to pull the trigger of the gun," Mr. Weng said.

Other "top-level people" should also be put on trial, he said.

"Maybe, yes, General Anupong. Maybe General Prayuth Chan-ocha," he said, referring to the previous army commander-in-chief and the current army chief.

Several days ago, New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a report titled "Descent into Chaos" investigating the 2010 protests and crackdown.

"The high death toll and injuries resulted from excessive an unnecessary lethal force on the part of the security forces," it said.

"The extensive casualties also resulted from deliberate attacks by militant armed elements of the UDD, whose leaders contributed to the violence with inflammatory speeches to demonstrators, including urging their supporters to carry out riots, arson attacks, and looting.

"The heavily armed 'Black Shirt' militants, apparently connected to the UDD and operating in tandem with it, were responsible for deadly attacks on soldiers, police, and civilians," Human Rights Watch said.

This Buddhist-majority, non-NATO U.S. military ally is preparing a nationwide election scheduled for July 3, pitting Mr. Abhisit's Democratic Party and coalition partners in a tight race against Mr. Thaksin's opposition Puea Thai Party, or Party for Thais.

Mr. Thaksin is unable to run as a candidate because he is an international fugitive -- based mostly in Dubai -- dodging a two-year prison sentence for a corrupt real estate deal during his five-year administration which benefited his wife who later divorced him.

He recently appointed his younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, as his party's leader to be Thailand's first female prime minister, even though she has no political experience.

Mrs. Yingluck, born on June 21, 1967, was a chief executive in the family's telecommunications and real estate businesses, and gained a Master's degree in public administration from Kentucky State University.

Critics of her appointment said Mr. Thaksin was concerned only with arranging his return to Thailand and reclamation of $2 billion in seized assets.

The Puea Thai party indicated it would try to arrange an "amnesty" for Mr. Thaksin if his sister forms a new coalition government.

That move could result in future confrontation by Mr. Thaksin's opponents within the military and other sectors of society.

Mr. Thaksin described his sister as his obedient "clone" and said if they form a government, they would not take revenge against their opponents and instead muzzle Reds who demand a systematic revolution.

Mr. Thaksin said his party would create mega projects, including land reclamation, flood management, improved rail service, and other popular services.

Mr. Thaksin's critics, however, want him to stand trial for his role in the alleged extrajudicial killing of more than 2,000 people during his administration's "war on drugs."

Oxford-educated Mr. Abhisit, meanwhile, is trying to shake a widespread perception that he is a puppet of the military which has staged 18 coups and attempted coups since the 1930s, though its generals now deny plotting another putsch.

The military supports Mr. Abhisit who is allowing generals a relatively free hand in procuring expensive and controversial weapon contracts.

Some Thai analysts expressed fear that the military may step in before the election to block a possible victory by Mr. Thaksin's candidates, or intervene after the polls if his party succeeds in forming a government.

"Under the present political circumstances, I can say that those who plan a coup are the most stupid of fools, and they are committing suicide," said retired Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, who led the 2006 coup against Mr. Thaksin.

"My remarks are only for today though," he told the Bangkok Post, describing his widely condemned coup as altruistic.


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of Hello My Big Big Honey!, a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is:

Asia Correspondent

(Copyright 2011 Richard S Ehrlich)