Dissident Thai General Shot; Army Moves to Face Protesters

Thomas Fuller/The International Herald Tribune
Gen. Khattiya Sawatdiphol, a renegade Thai general also known as Seh Daeng, was shot minutes after this photograph was taken on Thursday.

By THOMAS FULLER  Published: May 13, 2010

BANGKOK — A renegade Thai general was shot in Bangkok on Thursday as the military prepared to encircle the barricaded encampment of antigovernment protesters.

The general, Khattiya Sawatdiphol, 58, was struck in the head by a bullet during an interview with this reporter about 7 p.m. on the street in central Bangkok, near a park occupied by his hard-line followers. This reporter, who was facing the general and about two feet away, heard a loud bang not unlike a firecracker. The general fell to the ground, with his eyes wide open, and protesters took his apparently lifeless body to the hospital, screaming out his nickname.

“Seh Daeng has been shot! Seh Daeng has been shot!” protesters shouted amid growing panic.

Gunshots were heard in the minutes following, and there were later reports that 20 people had been injured, though whether from gunfire, a stampede, or some other cause was unclear. Within hours, protesters were clashing with security forces in Bangkok’s Lumpini Park.

The general was abhorred by both the government for disloyalty and also by most of the protest leaders for what they suspected was his role in fomenting violence. Still, he had assumed control of security for the protesters, placing his own black-shirted paramilitary fighters at entrances to the makeshift barriers around their encampment, and he claimed the loyalty of a small but intense group of protesters.

When the bullet struck him General Khattiya was inside the barricades, facing a road, overpass and a business district with several tall buildings. Wearing his usual camouflage uniform, he was answering a question about whether the Thai military would be able to penetrate the area.

The government announced earlier on Thursday that armored personnel carriers would be used to cordon off the area in what appeared to be the beginning of an operation to disperse the thousands of protesters who are camped out outside shopping malls and luxury hotels.

General Khattiya’s last words before being shot were, “The military cannot get in here.” Those words were spoken in Thai; he sometimes also spoke in broken English.

The protesters, known as the red shirts, started their mass demonstration two months ago seeking the dissolution of Parliament. But the movement has fractured, and the leaders’ ultimate aims have become less clear. In talks, the government recently agreed to allow early elections, but the breakthrough faltered as some protesters dug in, demanding that someone be held responsible for violence on April 10, when some 25 people were killed.

The general had been called a terrorist by the prime minister, who named him as the chief obstacle to the compromise plan.

Commanding his own paramilitary force of former rangers, General Khattiya was suspended without pay from the armed forces. A special committee was considering whether to strip him of his rank. His involvement with the protest movement underlines fractures within the military and more broadly in Thai society after four years of political turmoil.

In an interview on Sunday, he denied being responsible for any violence. “I deny!” he cried in English, with a laugh, 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 saw me.”

A tentative deal had been reached between the protesters and the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, only to fall apart this week.

A half-hour before he was shot, the General Khattiya was addressing a scrum of reporters at sundown at the barricades. Most peeled away, leaving the general in a conversation with this reporter.

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.”