BANGKOK Thousands of red-shirted anti-government protesters gathered on Sunday in Bangkok's old quarter to mark the one-year anniversary of a violent confrontation with the military in which 26 people were killed and more than 800 wounded.
"We are mourning the loss of innocent lives a year ago. We are remembering the violence against Thai people last year. We are asking for justice," Nattawut Saikua, a protest leader, told Reuters in an interview.
No one has been declared responsible for the violence that began on April 10 last year when soldiers fought with thousands of protesters near the Phan Fah bridge and Rajdumnoen Road in Bangkok, near government buildings and the regional U.N. headquarters.
The red-shirted supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a graft-convicted populist billionaire ousted in a 2006 coup, said they would continue to hold protests until the government takes responsibility for the violence.
Five soldiers and 21 civilians were killed, including Reuters television cameraman Hiro Muramoto, a 43-year-old Japanese national, on April 10 last year.
Witnesses reported seeing flashes of gunfire from troops but the government blamed civilian deaths on shadowy, unidentified black-clad gunmen who were filmed in the area.
"Today we pay tribute to Hiro's life but remain discouraged that the circumstances of his death are still unknown a year later. Hiro's family and Reuters colleagues deserve to know how this tragedy occurred and who was behind it," said Stephen Adler, Reuters editor-in-chief.
Police concluded on March 24 they had no evidence to indicate troops killed Muramoto, a reversal of preliminary findings by Thailand's Department of Special Investigation (DSI) that a soldier may have fired the fatal bullet.
Authorities expect about 75,000 red shirts to gather until well past midnight, a turnout that would be the largest since unrest over April and May last year killed 91 people, wounded more than 1,800 and sparked widespread arson and rioting in Bangkok.
"I was here last year. I never thought I would see this kind of cruelty in Thailand. I came back today because no one has been put in jail for it," said one protester, 38-year-old electrician Samart Ngamwongyai.
Streets were festooned with banners bearing red-shirt slogans such as "fight for democracy" or "truth today." One read: "You can't kill us all." Another said: "If Democracy wins in Tunisia and Egypt, we can win here."
One person wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the red-dot of the Japanese flag next to a placard with the words "Who killed Hiroyuki?"
About 2,100 police were deployed to the area.
"They can gather as long as they want as long as it's within the law and it doesn't infringe on others' rights," Deputy Commander of Bangkok Metropolitan Police, Major General Amnuay Nimmano, told Reuters.
The mostly rural and urban poor United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, or the red shirts, took to the streets on March 12 last year demanding elections in festive rallies that descended into violence on April 10.
On that night, soldiers failed repeatedly in attempts to dislodge the protesters from the area, at first firing tear gas and rubber bullets before coming under attack with grenades and responding with live ammunition.
The government said soldiers used live fire only in self-defense and denied soldiers were responsible for any deaths or injuries.
Relatives of some of the dead and wounded have filed civil lawsuits against three state agencies. The government has also faced intense diplomatic pressure from Japan to identify who fired the bullet that killed Muramoto.
The red shirts accuse Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of lacking a popular mandate and coming to power illegitimately, heading a coalition the military cobbled together after courts dissolved a pro-Thaksin party that led the previous government.
Abhisit says he was voted into office by the same parliament that picked his Thaksin-allied predecessors. He plans to hold an election around the middle of this year.
The election is expected to be close between Abhisit's ruling Democrat Party and red shirts' parliamentary allies, the Puea Thai Party, and the outcome could be rejected by supporters of either party, fuelling more instability.
(Writing by Jason Szep, editing by Miral Fahmy)