A Rogue Thailand General's Unsettling Legacy

On May 17 at 9.20 am, Major General Khattiya Sawasdiphol was pronounced dead after battling for his life for five days. The political life of Seh Daeng (Commander Red), the nickname of the rogue general, might be short. But he may have left an ominous and significant legacy in Thai politics.

In 2008, Seh Daeng emerged as a notorious figure among the Thai public after announcing that he would mobilize supporters of the government of Somchai Wongsawat, the brother-in-law of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, against any military attempt to seize political power. A soldier himself became the enemy of the army. He was also a threat to the Bangkok elites since he was known to have forged close relations with the deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose maneuvering brought about the continuing crisis.

She Daeng was shot in the head on May 13 by a sniper while being interviewed by foreign journalists. Some analysts argue that the assassination triggered full-blown clashes instigated by both the red-shirted United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and the government to on the streets of Bangkok. The deadly confrontations have so far resulted in 36 people killed and more than 200 injured.

Before his death, Seh Daeng had declared open war on the Abhisit Vejjajiva government. Proclaiming himself as the UDD's war strategist, the rogue general was quickly reconstructed as some kind of folk hero who passionately urged the red-shirted warriors to overcome the current elitist regime and to eliminate social injustice and double standards.

Some of his opponents might feel satisfied now that Seh Daeng has gone. But it will be too soon for them to celebrate. As it turns out, the red-shirts have proven more determined and ruthless in their retaliation against the state authorities. Consequently, the Bangkok streets have been filled with blood over the past few days.

Seh Daeng has already been sainted and perceived as martyr by the factions within the movement that favor extreme measures against the state. While he was alive, he was accused of training the “men in black” who operated in the fatal clashes on April 10, against the government. These men in black were later labeled by the Abhisit administration as terrorists. In many ways, this allowed the government to play along with the theme of “fighting against terrorism.” It also justified the state's use of force against the protesters.

The elimination of Seh Daeng was initially seen as an attack right at the heart of the red-shirted strategic planning unit. But just when the security forces believed that it would lead to the fragmentation of solidarity among the Red Shirts, his death has in turn boosted their morale, especially that of the hardliners within the reds who rejected Abhisit's roadmap and who still want the demonstrations to continue. The loss of their beloved warrior has had a tendency to transform some of them to become even more radical.

The danger lies in the fact that now, with the departure of their strategic planner, some protesters have decided to employ every possible means of their own to take revenge against the government. The use of military weapons among the Red Shirts is prevalent. Reportedly, there have been attempts to increase the number of deaths so as to discredit the government. But this kind of report could be very dangerous, since it would paint the Red Shirts as the sole culprits and purify the state authorities.

The trend towards radicalization has not only been evident in Bangkok. Red-shirted members in the north and northeast, still the strongholds of the fugitive Thaksin, have staged violent protests against the local authorities. The Bangkok Post reported that a shuttle bus used to transport students in the army's veterinary service was torched in Chiang Mai. While nobody has claimed responsibility, it was alleged that the UDD's local cell might be behind the crime.

The newspaper also reported that a group of teenagers set fire to tires on Chiang Kham-Chun Road in Phayao's Chun district on May 15. Authorities believed it was a copycat act following the Red Shirts' burning of tires on major roads in the capital. In Ubon Ratchathani, protesters also set tires alight outside the provincial hall on the Hua Saphan Bridge in front of the state-run NBT station and near Wing 21 air base. Soldiers fired warning shots when protesters tried to enter the base, according to the Bangkok Post. The protesters retreated and regrouped outside the provincial hall where they eventually dispersed.

The rise of political violence that has now permeated some parts of the remote provinces is sending worrying signs to the government. Radicalization elsewhere would mean that the government has to fight a war with many fronts. The core problem, as seen by the UDD, derives from the reluctance on the part of the Bangkok elites to let go of their domination of power. The state's brutal crackdown could have driven some radical reds underground to work as an insurgent group with the mission of overthrowing the government.

Recently, this segment within the reds—the radicals—has overpowered the other factions which may prefer non-violent approach. The split was clear. Veera Musikhapong, a seemingly moderate leader, has resigned purportedly because he disagreed with the radical branch of the UDD.

In the long term, this could potentially lead to the constitution of a new political culture in Thailand, the kind of culture that condones violence and radicalism. It will also seriously jeopardize the carefully crafted Thai identity of peace-loving based on the Buddhist teaching of non-violence. Some Thais have already argued that such an identity was fraudulent. And that the Thais are no different from other races on the planet who resort to violence every now and then to bargain for their political space.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a Fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. This is his personal view.