A renegade army general accused of leading a parliamentary force among Thailand’s Red Shirt protesters was shot in the head Thursday while speaking with foreign reporters as the government prepared to blockade the protesters’ camp in downtown Bangkok. At least one person was killed in clashes between the anti-government protesters and soldiers that continued into the night, the government’s medical emergency center said. It said seven others were injured.
Later in the evening, small clashes broke out between protesters and soldiers. At one point, hundreds of protesters threw rocks and firecrackers at a group of soldiers, who responded with gunfire, AP cameraman Raul Gallego said. He said one man was shot in the head. Soldiers opened fire again after an ambulance took the man away. It was not immediately clear if he was the same man that the government’s medical emergency center said had died. The man was identified as a 25-year-old man, emergency services reported. It is believed he was a protester who was shot during clashes seen by the Associated Press. It also reported seven other people were hurt, but couldn’t confirm Thai media reports of more than 20 injuries.
All talk of reconciliation and election timetables has been abandoned. Thursday’s shooting deepened fears of more bloodshed.
Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdiphol
Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdiphol was shot after the government announced that troops would encircle the protesters’ encampment in the city’s main commercial district, and that snipers would shoot “terrorists” in an effort to end the Red Shirts’ 2-month-long siege. Khattiya, 59, known by his nickname Seh Daeng (Commander Red), was hit as he was being interviewed at the edge of the protest zone and slumped to the ground. One person cradled his head. Moments later, others dragged him by the legs, his head sliding on the ground and leaving a trail of blood as he was rushed to a hospital. An aide said his injury was severe. When the bullet struck him, Khattiya was inside the barricaded red shirt encampment, facing a road, overpass and a business district with several tall buildings, said The New York Times, which had a reporter interviewing him at the time. When he was shot, Khattiya was answering a question about whether the Thai military would be able to penetrate the area.
Several Thai and foreign reporters said Khattiya was shot while being interviewed by them. “It is a clear attempt to decapitate the red shirt military leadership,” said Anthony Davies, a security consultant with IHS-Jane’s. “It’s a smart tactical move that will cause confusion in the red shirts’ military ranks and send a message to the leadership that if they don’t want to negotiate and come out, they can expect extreme consequences.” (Reuters)
In an interview with the AP about 90 minutes before he was shot, Khattiya, dressed in military-style fatigues, said he anticipated a military crackdown soon. “It’s either dusk or dawn when the troops will go in,” he said. He was shot soon after night fell. (The Associated Press)
The general commented on his uniform, saying it was the one he had worn when fighting communists three decades ago. He spoke about his role working with the protesters and how this task was different from his previous military missions. He described himself as leading a “people’s army” that was bracing for a crackdown by the military. This clash would be “free-form,” he said. “There are no rules.” (New York Times) He accused Red Shirt leaders of taking government bribes to accept Abhisit’s reconciliation plan to hold early elections on November 14, more than a year ahead of schedule. However, the plan was abandoned after the Red Shirts made new demands and refused to leave. “The prime minister and the Red Shirts were on the verge of striking a deal but then I came in. Suddenly, I became an important person,” he said. “This time, the people’s army will fight the army. There is no need to teach the people how to fight. There are no forms or plan of attack. You let them fight with their own strategies.” (The Globe & Mail)
Khattiya is a renegade general who has been accused by the government of being a terrorist and a mastermind of some of the violence. He bitterly opposed reconciling with the government and became critical of Red Shirt leaders, some of whom had wanted to accept a government compromise. Khattiya helped construct barricades of sharpened bamboo stakes and tires around the protest area and is accused of creating a parliamentary force among the protesters. He vowed to battle the army if it launched a crackdown. Khattiya was suspended from the army in January and an arrest warrant was issued against him. Yet he has wandered freely through the protest zone, signing autographs just yards (meters) from security forces keeping watch over the protesters.
In an interview on Sunday, he denied being responsible for any violence. “I deny!” he cried in English, when asked about the dozens of bombings that have set Bangkok on edge and about the mysterious black-shirted killers who escalated the violence on April 10. “No one ever say me.” (New York Times)
“He was kind of a loose cannon; most of us wish he was not part of what we do,” Sean Boonpracong, a spokesman for the protesters, said shortly after the shooting. (Washington Post)
State of Emergency
The government also announced it is extending a state of emergency to cover 17 provinces to prevent more people from joining the thousands of protesters in the capital. The decree gives the army broad powers to deal with protesters and places restrictions on civil liberties. Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said it is intended to prevent “masses of people trying to come to Bangkok.” (The Associated Press) Earlier Thursday, an army spokesman, Col. Sansem Kaewkamnerd, said security forces would impose a lockdown on the protest area. Sansem said armoured personnel carriers and snipers would surround the area. Power, public transport and cell phone service in the area also were suspended. He said any “unusual” engagement would be investigated. (BBC) “The numbers of police on the streets is growing, roadblocks are going up,” freelance reporter Michael McAuliffe said from Bangkok. (CBC)
The protesters, mostly rural poor, are demanding the dissolution of Parliament. Thy believe Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s coalition government came to power illegitimately through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military. The Red Shirts see Abhisit’s government as serving an elite insensitive to the plight of most Thais. The protesters include many supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist leader accused of corruption and abuse of power and ousted in a 2006 military coup. Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire who fled overseas to avoid a corruption conviction, is widely believed to be helping to bankroll the protests. He claims to be a victim of political persecution.
Spokesman Panitan said continuing protests by the Red Shirts would affect the proposed election date of November 14. He said Abhisit had mentioned that the proposed date for the new election had been made with the condition that the Red Shirts stop their protests. “He never said he withdrew his proposal,” Panitan said. (CNN)
McAuliffe, who described the situation in Bangkok as “extremely tense,” said the Red Shirt protesters were “essentially closing all of the entrances to the protest camp” and sealing themselves off behind piles of tires and bamboo sticks. (CBC) The protest camp covers several blocks and has at least seven or eight entrances, McAuliffe said. He said the protesters posted security watches outside the perimeter to watch for a military advance. McAuliffe said army vehicles have moved closer to the camp, but are hovering a few blocks away from the heart of the Red Shirt base.
Leaders of the Red Shirts were defiant, saying their supporters would never surrender and were not afraid to die. The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the formal name of the Red Shirts, greeted the government with defiance. “We want peace but they want war,” said Weng Tojirakarn, a party leader. “We will fight with our bare hands. We will stay.” (CNN) “We must defend ourselves from the offensive war of the government,” Tojirakarn continued. “We must stay here until we have overcome the assault by the government.” (Washington Post)
A reporter for TNN television said electricity went out in the Red Shirt Protest zone in Rajprasong, a posh area of shopping malls, hotels and upscale apartments. The government had threatened to cut off electricity and water supplies, but they suspended the threat late Wednesday, heeding pleas from residents and foreign diplomats in the area who said the impact would be greater on them than on the protesters.
The U.S. has closed its embassy in Bangkok saying it is “very concerned” – and the UK also said it was closing its embassy on Friday because of the situation. (BBC)
An earlier army attempt to clear the protesters from the capital on April 10 led to clashes that killed 19 protesters, five troops and a Japanese journalist and wounded more than 800. Another four people were killed in violence in the following weeks.