Shocked family bids farewell to medic killed in Red Shirt sanctuary

Andrew Buncombe joins the crowds flocking to an eastern Bangkok temple to pray after cruel death of 'Nurse Kate'

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:22

Even when she was a child, Kamolket Akahad wanted to help others. As her friends took up teenage hobbies, she spent her spare time volunteering.

When she left school she trained as a nursing assistant, worked at a private hospital and then left to join grassroots organisations linked to the Red Shirts. She was not a "hardcore" member, according to her family, but she believed in the "fight for democracy". She was easy-going and liked to laugh but she also bore a quiet courage.

Last week, such factors combined to place the 25-year-old at Wat Pathum, the temple in central Bangkok as heavily armed government troops clashed with a small group of Red Shirt demonstrators in the street outside. As a number of people were shot and injured – some fatally – the young woman styled "Nurse Kate" by some local media, rushed to attend their injuries. Among those she treated was The Independent, struck in the leg by shrapnel. And while she was treating another injured man, wearing a white T-shirt bearing the green cross that signifies a medic, she was shot and killed.

Her body was one of six removed from Wat Pathum the following morning. Post-mortem tests have revealed that all were killed by high-velocity bullets. Ms Akahad was hit three times.

In the week since the violence, as the centre of Bangkok has been cleaned up and returned to something approaching normal, the killing of the young woman has become central to a raging controversy over what precisely happened after hundreds of Red Shirt demonstrators took shelter at the 150-year-old temple, having fled their heavily defended encampment.

While the country's Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, has said a special inquiry team will look into recent events, the army command has claimed its soldiers did not fire into the temple grounds – seeking to suggest the Red Shirts themselves were responsible. At the same time, Red Shirts who were in the temple have insisted that the supposed place of sanctuary came under deadly attack from troops and special forces. Human rights groups have demanded that any inquiry into the deaths at Wat Pathum be truly independent.

Ms Akahad came from Poonsin I, a suburb 40 miles to the east of the centre of Bangkok. It was there, in a local temple, that her white-painted coffin was placed this past week and where Buddhist monks every evening chanted prayers designed to ensure the peaceful passage of her soul. Her body was cremated last night, seven days after she was killed.

It would perhaps be a step too far to claim that the journey to Poonsin I – a two-and-a-half-hour crawl through Bangkok's bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic – was a trip that symbolised the social divisions at the heart of the conflict tearing at the fabric of Thailand. But her working-class neighbourhood, set on the edge of flat farmland, lies beyond the glittering tower blocks of Bangkok and its multi-lane highways. Her father worked for the customs department, her mother was a housewife. She had two younger brothers.

The final night for prayers before Ms Akahad's cremation was on Tuesday, and on an evening when the sky was dark as ink, the temple was crowded with people paying their last respects and lining up to have their photograph taken in front of her coffin, draped with electric green lights. While the monks chanted, a traditional orchestra made of drums, glockenspiel, bells and flutes played. Ms Akahad – fondly nicknamed "moo" or pig by her family because of her heavy build – had preferred traditional Thai music to pop, and the orchestra was chosen for that reason.

The young woman's mother, Phayao, had last seen her daughter at the start of April. Since then Ms Akahad had been sleeping and working as a volunteer at the sprawling Red Shirt encampment established by the demonstrators over the last two months in the Ratchaprasong shopping district of central Bangkok. Often, Ms Akahad declined to answer her mother's calls as she knew she would be likely to try to persuade her to leave the protesters' camp and return home. However, last Wednesday evening, with gunfire and explosions reverberating outside Wat Pathum, she picked up her phone.

"That was the last call. She said it was getting dark. I could hear lots of shooting in the background," said the dead woman's mother. "I asked her where she was and she said she was at the front of the temple. I told her she needed to escape to the rear."

Mrs Akahad said the family had not been contacted by the authorities, with the exception of the local police. She said the office of Mr Abhisit had sent a wreath to the temple but the family had refused to accept it. "Now, I feel so lost," added Mrs Akahad, her face tired and sad. "She was unarmed. She only had medicine – to help people." Her father, Nattapat, his eyes lowered, said: "She was working as a volunteer medic and still she was shot."

Seven days after the Red Shirts' leadership surrendered to the authorities and thousands of demonstrators dispersed, the centre of Thailand's capital is buzzing. More than 20 fires lit by a hardcore of Red Shirts – several of them inside shopping malls – have been doused and the barricades of tyres and razor wire have been cleared.

Tourism officials said it could take anywhere between six months to two years for visitor numbers to return to what they were before the protests. At the same time, analysts say the root causes of the protest have yet to be addressed. "Thailand remains desperately divided," said Professor Duncan McCargo, a regional expert at the University of Leeds. "Rather than pursue a punitive policy of arresting Red Shirt leaders and sympathisers, the government would do better to try to find some common ground with a large element of the country's population who are here to stay."

For now at least, peace has returned to those parts of the city that had been turned into a smoking, burning battleground. At Wat Pathum too, there was yesterday little evidence of last week's chaos. The bloodstains that had darkened the car park had been washed away and young monks were decorating the temple buildings with bright pink and yellow ribbons to celebrate tomorrow's festival of Visakha, which celebrates the birth of Buddha. There was no sign, either, of the cache of weapons and arms the army claimed to have subsequently discovered inside the temple grounds and displayed for the television cameras.

Reports suggest that Ms Akahad was killed sometime after 7pm while attending to a man with gunshot wounds who had been hit outside the temple and then carried inside and laid down at a makeshift first-aid area, located near a souvenir shop. The injured man, Kittichai, survived his injuries, thanks to the intervention of the medics and his eventual evacuation to hospital by ambulance.

Among the people at the temple yesterday was a man who was also present last week and who said he had watched Ms Akahad and other volunteers attend the wounded. The man, who gave his name as Tom, claimed he had seen two soldiers located on the route of the passing light railway fire into the temple grounds. He took out his mobile phone to reveal photographs of injured people being treated inside the temple grounds.

Tom, a temple workman, said he had also been at the front of the compound when Ms Akahad was hit. He said he had seen her helping the injured man, then stand up to collect more first aid supplies. It was at that point that the young woman whose first instinct was to help others was shot. "She was near the first-aid tent," he said, "doing first-aid. She was saving a man's life."

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