Payao Akhad performs at a Walk for Justice at Wat Pathum Wanaram, Bangkok, on May 19, 2017. 

© 2017 Prachatai

Kamolkate “Kate” Akhad was a 25-year-old nurse tending to an injured man in a Buddhist temple compound in Bangkok on May 19, 2010, when Thai Special Forces soldiers shot and killed her. She was among the last victims of months of violent confrontations between state security forces and “red shirt” protesters that left at least 98 dead and over 2,000 injured.

Last Friday, seven years after Kate’s death, Thai police arrested her mother, Payao Akhad, and seven other activists staging a memorial performance for those killed at Wat Pathum Wanaram. Payao painted her face white with a red cross on her forehead, mirroring the Red Cross on the uniform Kate was wearing when she was killed. The activists were later released.

Payao has been a tireless advocate for victims of the 2010 violence and their families. Her daughter’s death spurred her role as a leading activist in what has proved a difficult search for justice. “My life has changed, from an ordinary housewife to a mother who has to fight for justice for my daughter,” she said.

Human Rights Watch documented soldiers’ excessive and unnecessary use of lethal force during the 2010 government crackdown, including the military’s deployment of snipers. Our research detailed how soldiers fired from elevated railroad tracks onto the temple grounds, which had been declared a “safe zone” by both the government and protesters, including the medic tent where Kate was working.

Despite overwhelming evidence of army responsibility, no officers or soldiers have been charged in the killings. This failure of accountability is emblematic of the impunity that has long protected Thailand’s security forces.

Avenues for justice were further blocked after the May 2014 military coup. Coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, now the country’s prime minister, has often said that soldiers should not be held responsible for the 2010 violence. The ruling junta, which has stifled free speech and suppressed critics, has shown no interest in prosecuting soldiers for abuses committed.

Yet even in the face of growing threats against peaceful activism, Payao has relentlessly spoken out against proposed amnesty bills, the obstruction of investigations, and court dismissals of charges against former senior civilian officials.

“They intercepted us probably because they feared we would find the truth,” Payao said of her arrest on Friday. “Justice can prevail only when the truth is revealed.”