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2010 archives: Who opened fire on a safe haven?

Wounded protesters inside the Wat Patum sanctuary at the centre of the red shirt camp.

Mark MacKinnon/The Globe and Mail

To those caught in the deadly crossfire in and around Bangkok's Wat Pathum temple, it didn't matter much who was shooting at them, only that it stopped.

But in the aftermath, the question of precisely who opened fire on some of the 1,500 civilians huddled inside the Buddhist temple - which was supposed to have been a sanctuary from the violence raging around it Wednesday - is becoming a crucial one that may determine how the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is regarded both inside and outside Thailand.

At least six people died and 10 others were injured - some critically - as intense gun battles erupted near the southern and western edges of the 153-year-old temple, a white-walled compound that includes monks' quarters and an adjacent royal park that was converted into a makeshift field hospital. The gunfire continued for hours, and at least one man died of his injuries because he couldn't safely be taken to a hospital that was directly across the street.

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A ceasefire was arranged late Wednesday night to allow ambulances to finally approach the temple and evacuate the wounded. Soldiers and police arrived Thursday morning and herded those who had spent a terrifying night inside the temple onto buses that drove them back to their hometowns in the countryside.

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The scenes of the bewildered and frightened Red Shirts being herded onto buses brought an end to the temple drama, but not to the controversy over what happened. An official in Mr. Abhisit's office said Thursday that a civilian-military panel was being formed to investigate who shot those hiding inside Wat Pathum.

It's likely to be an extremely charged affair. British reporter Andrew Buncombe, struck in the right leg by a shotgun round while still inside the temple grounds, was visited in his hospital room Thursday morning and quizzed about who he believed fired the shot. A translator employed by The Globe and Mail - also caught in the crossfire inside Wat Pathum - was asked to discuss the incident on Thai television, only to have the invitation revoked when he refused to limit the discussion to the government's role in rescuing those inside.

"The facts, I would say, are very contested. There's an information gap, and the full picture is still unclear," said Benjamin Zawacki, a Thailand-based researcher for Amnesty International. "Obviously, it's critical to determine who was doing the firing [into the temple] Whoever has the finger pointed at them has a lot to lose politically."

Those inside the temple were convinced that soldiers were deliberately targeting those who had taken refuge inside. The government of Mr. Abhisit, meanwhile, is looking to bolster limited evidence that Red Shirt fighters used firearms to confront soldiers, necessitating the deadly response from the military.

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Though witnesses reported seeing the occasional Red Shirt carrying a firearm during fighting that raged around Bangkok on Wednesday, the vast majority of the protesters were unarmed, and most of those who did fight the army did so with crude weapons such as fireworks and bamboo poles. None of those inside the temple appeared to be carrying anything more deadly than a slingshot.

The director of Thailand's National Institute of Forensic Science told reporters Thursday that his initial inspection showed that those dead inside the temple had been shot from a distance. "The authorities suspect the people were killed by sharpshooters," said army spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd.

Shooting at civilians taking refuge in a temple would be seen as particularly reprehensible in a country that is 95-per-cent Buddhist. "The army won't come in here. This is a haven. They will respect the fact that this is a temple," explained Pra Putthi, a 38-year-old monk who resides at Wat Pathum. He spoke Wednesday as the sun was setting and hundreds of refugees began making preparations to spend the night inside the temple.

Within an hour of the monk's calm assurances, the supposed safe haven of his temple was under heavy fire.

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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