Asia Pacific

Thai General Shot; Army Moves to Face Protesters

Steve Pace/Reuters

Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawatdiphol, who had allied himself with protesters, was shot in the head on Thursday in Bangkok. More Photos »

  • comments
  • Print
  • Reprints

BANGKOK — A renegade major general who allied himself with the protesters who have paralyzed Bangkok for weeks was shot in the head and critically wounded here on Thursday as the military began sealing off a barricaded encampment of antigovernment protesters.

The general, Khattiya Sawatdiphol, 58, had become a symbol of the lawlessness and impunity that have torn Thailand apart as the protests have pitted the nation’s poor against its establishment.

He was shot during an interview with a reporter for The New York Times about 7 p.m., one hour after the military announced the start of a blockade and cut off electricity and water to a tent city of thousands of protesters.

The reporter, who was two feet away and facing the general, heard a loud bang similar to that of a firecracker.

The general fell to the ground, his eyes wide open, and protesters took his apparently lifeless body to a hospital, screaming his nickname: “Seh Daeng has been shot! Seh Daeng has been shot!”

He was later reported to be on life support. Within hours, protesters were clashing with security forces in Lumpini Park in Bangkok.

The general rankled both the government, by joining the so-called red-shirt movement, and many protest leaders, for his refusal to back down. The government accused him of a role in the violence that has taken more than two dozen lives since the protests began in mid-March. In the interview on Thursday, he described other leaders of the protesters as cowardly “idiots.”

Nonetheless, the general had assumed control of security for the protesters, placing his own black-shirted paramilitary fighters at entrances in the makeshift barriers around their encampment, and he claimed the loyalty of a small but intense group of protesters.

Although the government called him the main impediment to peace and suspended him without pay, he was allowed to move freely, exposing the impotence of the authorities here.

“I deny!” he cried in English, with a laugh, when asked in an interview on Sunday 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 that killed 26 soldiers and civilians. “No one ever saw me.”

The military, which has held back from clearing out the protesters for fear of bloodshed, now appeared ready to crack down. The general’s last words before being shot were, “The military cannot get in here.”

But even as the military moves to seal off the area, it remains stymied by the likelihood of resistance that could expand outside Bangkok into rural areas that are the heartland of the opposition.

And the protests themselves are only the latest and most dangerous manifestation of what seem to be irreconcilable differences in the country. Thailand’s social contract has frayed, posing a challenge to an entrenched hierarchical system with a constitutional monarch at its core.

There are several levels to the protesters’ demands, including the return of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006 and is now abroad evading a corruption conviction, and a desire for a more equitable democratic system in which their voices would carry greater weight.

The protesters first accepted and then refused a government offer to hold an election in November in return for an end to their sit-in. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva withdrew that offer. He previously called General Khattiya a terrorist.

The reversal of the agreement with the government was a sign of growing factionalization of the protest movement — the Thai news media reported that a number of the leaders stepped down on Thursday — and raised fears that even if some of them agreed to break camp, others would hold their ground.

General Khattiya’s involvement with the protest movement underlines fractures in the military, and more broadly in Thai society, after four years of political turmoil.

“The people won’t go home,” the general said on Sunday night, as admirers crowded around him at a McDonald’s restaurant in the heart of the protest area. “Just stop? Compromise? All these people, the hard core, they want to stay longer.”

When the bullet struck him on Thursday, General Khattiya was facing a road, an overpass and a business district with several tall buildings.

In the minutes afterward, more gunshots were heard, and there were later reports that 20 people had been injured, though the cause of their injuries was unclear.

The protesters clustered around a high fence surrounding the park, throwing stones and firing slingshots and possibly shooting firearms at soldiers inside. One protester was shot in the head and was taken away by an ambulance, even as gunfire from within the park continued. He was later reported to have died.

Still later in the night, gunshots and explosions could be heard.

General Khattiya reveled in the attention he was receiving, from the prime minister, the press and the protesters, who he said “believe that because Seh Daeng is here they won’t die.”

“That’s why everywhere I go people cheer me and ask for my autograph,” he said. Along with a knife and a canteen, he carried a blue marker pen and wrote his name on shirts and caps as he posed for pictures with his admirers.

Before he was shot, the government had announced 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 were camped out outside shopping malls and luxury hotels.

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

The general commented on his uniform, saying it was the one he had worn when fighting communists three decades ago. He spoke about working with the protesters and about how it 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, adding, “There are no rules.”

Seth Mydans contributed reporting.

MOST POPULAR