Reporterinexile.com's insight into covering the first three days and nights of the Thai crisis. An inside look at covering a conflict.
By Kenneth Todd Ruiz
BANGKOK – A sniper’s bullet struck a rogue army officer revered by anti-government demonstrators, plunging the Thai capital into a night of chaos Thursday which left at least one civilian dead and scores injured.
Maj. Gen. Khattiya Swasdipol, an incendiary figure known here as the "Red General,” was shot in the head just before sunset as the Thai army moved to seal off an expansive area occupied by “red shirt” protesters the past six weeks.
"You have decided to crush us, we are being surrounded,” said Sean Boonpracong of the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship, which is orchestrating the effort to depose the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. “We are ready to sacrifice and we are preparing our defenses ... we will fight you.”
Khattiya, who had been suspended from the army and even disobeyed directives from red-shirt leaders, was still in critical condition Friday morning. Tasked with red-shirt security, he had bragged of recruiting former soldiers and training his own “Ronin Warriors” to fight the government.
In the aftermath of the attempted assassination, enraged protesters threw rocks and petrol bombs throughout the night while exchanging sporadic gunfire and grenade attacks with soldiers positioned nearby.
Assaulted by rocks and fireworks from a taunting mob of red shirts, a group of soldiers crouching in the darkness of Bangkok’s large central park opened fire with M16 rifles just before 11 p.m., killing at least one civilian.
Despite the government’s pledge to cordon off the protest area, red shirts took control of a major road and stormed a bus carrying riot police. The police agreed to turn back and leave the area after a tense exchange.
Ambulances rushed eight red-shirt guards to the hospital after they were reportedly poisoned. Witnesses said they had been given free coffee from a van that quickly left the scene.
Thai authorities made no visible effort to block traffic from the conflict zone. A motorist caught in the crossfire of automatic weapons and M79 grenade launchers was hospitalized after stumbling from his car with a head wound.
Red shirts encamped near the Silom Road financial district exchanged rounds of sustained gunfire with garrisoned soldiers.
Although the red-shirts proclaim to be unarmed and nonviolent, a number of their black-clad security have been seen carrying and firing weapons.
Thursday’s violence followed a botched crackdown last month that killed 25 people and injured more than 800. Grenades fired from M79 grenade launchers killed a 26-year-old Thai woman in Bangkok’s financial district three weeks ago.
Thai authorities announced earlier Thursday their plan to disperse protesters – whose numbers fluctuate from about 5,000 to 10,000 – after red-shirt leaders abandoned a government-sponsored reconciliation plan they had earlier agreed to.
Under that agreement, Abhisit would have dissolved parliament and held new elections in six months.
But his “road map for peace” offered no provisions to politically rehabilitate the former prime minister whom the red shirts are fighting to return to power.
Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecom billionaire turned populist politician, is widely believed to be orchestrating and financing the red shirts.
His pledges in 2000 to address growing class disparities won support from the rural poor who now comprise the red-shirt rank and file. The military deposed his government four years ago, the 11th such coup since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Thaksin subsequently fled Thailand after being convicted of corruption.
A Thaksin-loyal government followed, but was toppled in 2008 after middle-class royalists, the so-called “Yellow Shirts,” crippled Bangkok by shutting down its airports.
The yellow-red conflict between the rural poor and urban elite underscores ever-growing class divisions the “Land of Smiles.” Bangkok has enjoyed decades of a booming success from which the rice-basket provinces complain they have not benefited.