BANGKOK -- Even Thais who despise the renegade army general known as "Seh Daeng" -- and many do -- are likely chilled by his shooting. The major general, real name Khattiya Sawisdipol, is not the sort of man you want to make angry.
General Khattiya maintains his own gun-toting militia. He accurately predicts grenade attacks against government targets. And though he's vowed to defend the anti-government "Red Shirt" protesters encamped for nine weeks in downtown Bangkok, even their leadership has disavowed him for openly agitating violence.
Khattiya was shot in the head Thursday night -- likely by sniper fire -- while speaking to reporters outside a barricade built of used tires and bamboo stakes. He appears to have survived, though in critical condition.
This marks a return to a violence in a struggle that has left nearly 30 dead and more than 900 injured. And it will likely disintegrate a negotiation process that many hoped would return normalcy to Bangkok.
Just last week, the Thai premier was still offering to cut his term short by more than a year if protesters would return home. But as the Red Shirts insisted on criminal proceedings against the premier and his deputy -- who they claim masterminded an April 10 army raid that left 25 dead -- the deal fell apart.
And now that the hero of the most militant protesters is in the ICU ward, the odds of a peaceful resolution appear more distant than ever.
The Red Shirts have been alternately depicted as democratic crusaders against Thailand's oppressive aristocrats and upcountry hooligans paid to raise hell. The truth is that they're a loose coalition of Thais with one commonality: they hate the powers that be.
This coalition includes working-class urban dwellers who resent moneyed elites, bourgeois Thais with a grudge against powerful business interests and those still loyal to ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, deposed in a 2006 coup.
It also includes Khattiya, originally famous for published tell-alls about killing communists in the 1970s. Since joining the Red Shirts' cause, he has also become Thailand's scariest bogeyman.
In between diatribes against his superiors, he has claimed the ability to strike his enemies with M-79 grenade launchers, a Vietnam War-era weapon that fits discreetly into a backpack. It so happens that dozens of M-79 attacks have hit symbols of Thai power -- ministries and the army headquarters -- and even killed counter-protesters in recent months.
Khattiya is wanted by police for violating Bangkok's ongoing emergency decree and the Thai premier, on television, has linked him to terrorism. But despite all this, he remains on active duty. He was shot during a routine patrol of the Red Shirt encampment's perimeter, where journalists know to find him for sound bytes. He has seemed to be feared and untouchable.
That soldiers and police have demurred from capturing this rogue general has only built his mystique. But someone -- a soldier? some other enemy? -- has finally caught up to him. Many in Bangkok cringe tonight as they wonder how his ragtag militia and his diehard followers will settle the score.
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