Foreign Policy Blogs

Passion of the Redshirts: When the Samurai Falls

NY Times Map of the Protest Epicenter

NY Times Map of the Protest Epicenter

Over the last couple of days things have escalated again in Bangkok.  It is unclear what ignited the latest round of violence, but it appears that Wednesday’s rejection of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s proposed compromise, after its initial tentative acceptance by the Red Shirts, caused the government to run out of patience.  What is clear is that  Major General Khattiya “Seh Daeng” Sawatdiphol (58) was shot in the head by government security forces on Thursday while giving an interview to foreign press.  He is alive, but in critical condition.  The army denies responsibility, and says they will “investigate”.  Khattiya is well known in Thailand as a pro-Red Shirt activist since 2008.  He is also a suspected paramilitary terrorist.  The government believes he is the leader the shadowy paramilitary force known as the “Ronin Warriors”, named after the famous masterless Samurai of ancient Japan.  Some refer to him as, “the Samurai”. Specifically:

He is (was) wanted for questioning about a mysterious alleged death squad known as “Ronin Warriors”. The government and military blame them for several recent killings stemming from dozens of unsolved M-79 grenade attacks on banks, electric pylons, army positions, an airport fuel depot, government offices and a crowd of people on Silom Road one evening near the red shirts’ barricades.

Khattiya, a bestselling novelist in Thailand, wrote about his exploits during the 1970′s, when he was a special forces fighter, charged with liquidating the communist threats in a CIA-backed campaign in Laos.  In recent weeks, he has made public statements concerning the weakness of the UDD  (Red Shirt) leadership, and the need for more strategic thinking as he expected a military push to break up the protests once and for all.  He also made, what appeared to be an indirect threats, that if the government attempted another crackdown, the Ronin Warriors would “defend the people”.  In recent weeks, other Red leaders had distanced themselves from Khattiya, because of his violent image.  However, he does have a devoted group of radical followers within the Red Shirt movement.

It could be that the government feared that he would use any conflict as a rallying cry for military overthrow, (led by himself) if joined by military and police officials that side with the Reds.  The government definitely believes he was a major obstacle in the failure of the compromise.  Khattiya has also admitted to having recently met with Thailand’s deposed ex-Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra in Dubai.  Shinawatra is thought by many pro-government/royalist to be the true force behind the Red Shirts.

The attack against the protesters was organized, as the New York Times reported:

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 immediate response from protesters in Bangkok was to taunt and attack the police with slingshots, rocks, bow & arrows, bamboo spears, homemade rockets, and possibly firearms.  By Friday the Thai forces had responded with bullets and tear gas.  Although violence had slowed by Friday evening, it is likely it will start back up as both soldiers and protesters have entrench themselves.   People are being allowed by soldiers to leave peacefully, but not to return.  The government appears to be favoring a fight of attrition.  The attempted April 10 crackdown left 26 soldiers and civilians dead; so far, there are conflicting reports that as many as 10 people have been killed and approximately 100 wounded.

Still, the government has failed to force the protesters out of their tent city hold-up:

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.

It is unclear what the Red Shirts hoped to accomplish by rejecting the compromise.  Red Shirts wanted the Deputy Prime Minister to turn himself into the police because of the violence on April 10, instead he turned himself in the DSI, the Thai “FBI”.   The Reds believe the DSI is not neutral.   After this the negotiations started a downward spiral.

Taking a more conspiratorial approach, maybe the Red leadership, including Thakskin Shinawatra, wanted to provoke further violence to hasten a general national uprising, instead of waiting for elections in November.  If Red shirt leaders have the influence they claim nationally, especially in their stronghold in the north of the country, it is possible a larger insurrection could occur.  It will be interesting to watch if military and police units start to refuse to participate in a further crackdown or defect.  Although, there are thought to be Shinawatra supporters in both forces, there is no strong evidence of any mass desertion, refusal to follow orders,  or defection to the Red Shirt camp.  The Red Shirts may have overplayed their hand.  The government has now withdrawn the compromise offer, and the Reds are refusing to talk.