Updated: May 13, 2010, 11:15 a.m. E.T.
The Thai general popularly known as Seh Daeng has never been shy about talking to the press, even if he is coy about owning up to what he has been charged with: providing security for the Red Shirt protest movement and allegedly fielding a death squad to counter death squads associated with the government. Major General Khattiya Sawatdiphol has been the swashbuckling, profanity-spewing field marshal of the protest movement that has virtually shut down the center of the capital, Bangkok, and withstood military assaults for five weeks. But on Thursday, as he was talking to a reporter from the International Herald Tribune, Seh Daeng was struck in the head by a bullet, an incident captured on video, and rushed to a hospital as the military appeared to have surrounded the Red Shirt encampment.
The attack on Seh Daeng dramatized the collapse of a peace deal between the government and the protest movement. Ten days ago, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva attempted to break the country's political deadlock by announcing an early election date as part of a compromise aimed at ending the occupation of a key commercial district in Bangkok by thousands of anti-government protesters. But the rebels refused to end their protests, apparently because of a split among their leaders, who reportedly include more than 20 people ranging from opposition members of parliament to former communist revolutionaries, anti-monarchists and rogue military officers like Seh Daeng. Earlier on Thursday, with the protesters still refusing to leave, Abhisit said an early election was off the table. By evening, Seh Daeng was shot. He is in a coma, but doctors say he will survive. Local reports claim that Seh Daeng had been in a heated argument with other Red leaders not long before he was shot.
The Thai military had accused the rebel general of being behind the "Ronin Warriors," a gang that has apparently gone after government targets with grenade attacks. He has denied the charge but said it is only fair that a death squad is helping the protesters since the government seemed to have its own "men in black" attacking the demonstrators and their sympathizers. "Ronin" is a reference to masterless Japanese samurai. Seh Daeng himself had been ostracized by his masters in the military. According to the journalist Richard Ehrlich, who interviewed him on Tuesday, Seh Daeng, one of the Thai army's most experienced strategists, was reassigned to teach aerobics in 2008. He reportedly responded to the insult by saying, "I have prepared one dance. It's called the 'Throwing a Hand Grenade' dance."
There was much speculation that Seh Daeng was manipulating the Red Shirt protest in order to give his allies in the military an opportunity to stage a coup. He is believed to have coordinated and to be responsible for dozens of grenade attacks around Bangkok during the past two months. He is close to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and lives abroad rather than serve a prison sentence for a corruption conviction. Seh Daeng visited Thaksin in Dubai several times, and he coordinated the building of the barricades and military-style operations of the Reds.
The Red Shirts have come to Bangkok primarily from poorer, rural parts of Thailand and are supporters of Thaksin, who won their allegiance with a raft of populist policies including easy credit and universal health care. They claim Abhisit rose to power illegitimately through backroom deals and with the help of the military, and they are demanding that he resign.
The number of demonstrators, once as many as 140,000, has shrunk to less than 10,000 in recent weeks. But they have erected a tent city and improvised fortress in the Rajaprasong commercial district in the heart of Bangkok. The Red Shirts have barricaded themselves inside the district, erecting walls using tires, bamboo spikes and gas containers that are rigged to explode. Rajaprasong is home to shopping malls, luxury apartment buildings, embassies, schools and hospitals. On Thursday, the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce said the economic damage caused by the protest was about $2 billion.
The ongoing violence and Abhisit's announcement have dashed hopes that the two sides could reach a quick and peaceful end to the two-month-old demonstration. A previous attempt on April 10 to disperse the protesters from a different part of Bangkok failed, as paramilitaries among the protesters, reportedly including the Ronin Warriors, fought back against soldiers with grenades and guns. Twenty-nine people were killed, including six soldiers, and more than 800 were wounded.
"I have canceled the election date ... because protesters refuse to disperse," Abhisit told reporters on Thursday. He said he would still proceed with a plan to end political divisions, which he first unveiled when making his offer of holding early elections on Nov. 14. His term legally expires at the end of 2012. "I will proceed with the five-point reconciliation plan," the Prime Minister said. The plan includes steps to build a social-welfare system and address injustices and political grievances. Protest leaders had earlier said they accepted the plan in principle but then began issuing more demands on a daily basis and ultimately refused to abandon their occupation.
In the meantime, the government began taking steps to choke off logistical support for the protest. It positioned more troops around the demonstration site. Checkpoints were set up to stem supplies of food and other equipment, and to restrict the movements of the demonstrators who had staged raids on parliament, the office of the election commission and other sites in recent weeks. "We have been having some success against them," said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a government spokesman. "They can no longer roam freely around Bangkok."
The protesters, however, remained undaunted by the security moves against them and noted that they have their own electrical generators. "We don't fear anything the government can do to us," protest leader Weng Tojirakan told followers from the main rally stage. "We are fighting for justice."