Thai general who was aiding anti-government protesters is shot, wounded

Days after the Thai military launched an offensive to evict anti-government protesters from central Bangkok, the focus turns to cleanup and recovery.
By Tim Johnston
Friday, May 14, 2010

BANGKOK -- A renegade Thai army officer advising the anti-government protesters who have occupied sections of central Bangkok for more than a month was shot and critically injured and a protester was killed Thursday night amid the latest violent clashes with security forces.

As darkness fell, soldiers were deployed at key points beyond the stockades made of tires and sharpened bamboo staves that mark the fringes of the zones set up by the protesters, known as "red shirts."

The government also extended a state of emergency to cover 17 of Thailand's 76 provinces, in an effort to keep more protesters from traveling to the capital, according to the Associated Press.

Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol, whose views are regarded as extreme even by his political allies, was shot in the head while talking to a New York Times journalist shortly after the launch of a security operation to surround the square-mile protest site and prevent supplies from reaching demonstrators.

Khattiya, 58, was one of a number of casualties reported by hospital officials in Bangkok after an explosion and gunfire Thursday evening. There were later reports of gunshots and of protesters lobbing rocks at police, who responded with rubber bullets. The Thai government's medical emergency center said one demonstrator, Chartchai Bualao, 25, was killed in the clashes, according to news reports.

The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok will be closed Friday and has alerted U.S. citizens living in or traveling to Thailand about the protests.

The attack on Khattiya marks another bloody episode in the increasingly confrontational standoff between demonstrators and the government.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, the prime minister, withdrew an offer of early elections he made last week as a compromise response to the protesters' demand for his immediate resignation. The protest leaders initially gave the offer a cautious welcome but then qualified their acceptance with demands to ensure they would not be jailed as soon as the protests ended.

The shifting demands appeared to exhaust Abhisit's patience. "I have canceled the election date . . . because protesters refuse to disperse," he said Thursday. "I have told security officials to restore normality as soon as possible."

The authorities are considering cutting off water and power supplies to the demonstration area, but are hesitating, in part because of the presence of two hospitals in the immediate vicinity. Analysts say turning off the fire hydrants that supply most of the water to the protesters could have a devastating effect.

But Abhisit is also running out of options. The police are widely believed to share many of the concerns of the protesters, and the army seems willing to carry out containment operations while showing little appetite for a bloody confrontation, which would be necessary to expel the demonstrators.

Protest supporters, galvanized by the threat of the crackdown, flocked to the main protest site, energizing a rally that had begun to show signs of long-term fatigue. "We must stay here until we have overcome the assault by the government," said Weng Tojirakarn.

However, there were only limited references to Khattiya, better known as Seh Daeng -- Commander Red -- and one of the most controversial figures in the anti-government movement. Vejjajiva described him recently as the biggest barrier to the peace process. Khattiya is close to Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister and godfather of the protest movement.

"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.

"I am a soldier outside the law," Khattiya told the Financial Times late last year. Volume 5 of his self-published autobiography shows a picture of him dressed as Rambo.

-- Financial Times

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