A Sniper Gets Thailand’s Red Shirt Commander

A few days before Major-General Khattiya Sawasdipol was targeted for death in an alleged niper attack Thursday, his Seh Daeng or "Commander Red" nickname was in the air.

Many Bangkokians weary of the Red Shirts who have paralyzed the city and disrupted their lives had already concluded that Khattiya was an obstacle to peace. He was shot in the head while talking with New York Times reporter Thomas Fuller and was in intensive care in a Bangkok hospital. The government had branded him a "terrorist" who was accused of not only having masterminded the April 10 riot that killed 25 but also of fomenting violence through a series of mysterious grenade attacks leading up to April 10 and after. The grenade blasts wounded at least a hundred people.

Khattiya's name came to dominate the discourse soon after peace talks between the Abhisit Vejajjiva government and the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship or UDD – the Red Shirts -- collapsed over the weekend. It therefore came as no surprise that he would be taken out.

"This was frontier justice," said a source. "The moment (Khattiya) bragged and took credit for some of the April 10 targeted assassinations of (Colonel) Romklao Thuwatham and other soldiers, he was a dead man."

Several sources confirmed that Khattiya was targeted for breaking the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy code of honor: thou shalt not kill a fellow officer.

"This was out of another era: live by the sword, die by the sword," the source added. It is not the first time in Thai history that frontier eye-for-an-eye justice is administered to renegade officers. And Khattiya, from Chulachomklao Class 11, was suspended from duty in January for insubordination. Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon signed Khattiya's dismissal papers Sunday according to local media. It was no secret that Khattiya had openly taunted army chief Anupong Paochinda.

Chulachomklao – Thailand's West Point or Sandhurst – produces the army's finest commissioned officers and leaders. Colonel Romklao, the deputy chief of staff of the 2nd Infantry Division and Queen Sirikit's former body guard was one such officer from Class 36. Romklao was widely accepted by Thais and foreign observers as an honorable officer and gentleman who was a tough act to follow. Romklao's contributions to peace and managing civilian affairs in the southern border provinces were among his most significant. A Catholic in a largely Buddhist institution, Romklao was said to be sympathetic to Malay-Muslims in the strife-torn South. But by testifying against the "red shirts" in parliament after last year's "Songkran riots" that Romklao had put down, he didn't win friends in the red camp.

Queen Sirikit attended Romklao's funeral early last month after shadowy black-shirted so-called Ronin soldiers had assassinated the colonel during the April 10 melee. The Queen's appearance and public support for Romklao were not unusual but analysts note that it came in the wake of the palace's silence on the crisis.

The Thai queen had early on stirred controversy when she attended the funeral of a "yellow shirt" demonstrator in October 2008 when the People's Alliance for Democracy or PAD clashed with police.

The "black shirts" who had moved among the Red Shirts on April 10 had launched M79 and expert sniper attacks against army troops, hitting Romklao in a laser-precision move. It is still not clear who commandeered the "black shirts" but Khattiya was the only one who claimed some responsibility for the fallen soldiers even though, observers say, he is not believed to have the wherewithal to launch a sophisticated political assassination operation.

Sources say the real masterminds would not have bragged about the dead soldiers, and that the true killers could still be out there operating surreptitiously. The army, however, sources say, had to make a scapegoat out of Khattiya or risk losing its own credibility. The Thai army has denied any involvement.

"What happened to (Khattiya) was totally unexpected," said Colonel Dithaporn Sasasmit, spokesman for the army-run Internal Security Operation Command (ISOC).

The PAD and other hard-line factions opposed to the Red Shirts have been pressuring both Prime Minister Abhisit and General Anupong to crackdown on Khattiya and the Red Shirts.

Public emotions had also reached a crescendo after the UDD's rogue paramilitary guards, led by Khattiya raided Chulalongkorn Hospital a fortnight ago looking for troops they mistakenly believed to be operating from within its premises. The hospital was forced to evacuate its patients, turning many Bangkokians decisively against the Red Shirts.

The UDD apologized to the public and the moderates in the UDD distanced themselves from Khattiya's ragtag militias.

Khattiya was often seen mixing with his vigilante guards who dress in black and who control access to the Ratchaprasong encampment where the Red Shirts have stayed put since mid-March despite an agreement last week for them to cease the confrontation in exchange for a November election date.

Prior to his shooting, Khattiya was also often seen signing autographs for his Red Shirt fans, many of whom were women who often lined up to be photographed with him.

Khattiya was taken to Hua Chiew Hospital and later moved to another Bangkok hospital. Both hospitals were heavily guarded by police last night. Khattiya is reported to be in a coma. Unlike April 10, Red Shirts were not allowed anywhere near the hospital grounds but several of his supporters got in wearing ordinary clothing. One such supporter was Khattiya's teacher, who taught him how to use a computer and helped him to set up his website sae-dang.com that is blocked by the Thai authorities. His teacher, who asked only to be identified as Ken said in broken English: "He was clever. And always kindness. He treats people all same (equally). He was not careful (yesterday)."

Indeed. Khattiya said in an interview with the Bangkok Post just before he was shot that he had refused to remove his military fatigues, thereby exposing him to his enemies.

''I'm a [red shirt security] commander-in-chief, I can't fear anything,'' the 59-year-old Khattiya said. Discarding the military fatigues "would make me feel like one who fears death, and would prevent me from leading others who do not have protective clothing."