Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol is carried by supporters after being shot… (Steve Pace / AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from New Delhi and Bangkok, Thailand — A Thai general who broke ranks to lead anti-government protests was shot in the head Thursday, an assault likely to inflame passions and undermine tenuous talks to end the demonstrators' two-month occupation of a prime Bangkok shopping area.
No one took immediate responsibility for the apparent sniper attack on Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol, who was injured and hospitalized. The government's emergency medical center said one protester was killed in subsequent clashes between demonstrators and security forces.
The 59-year-old general, better known as "Seh Daeng," joined the "Red Shirt" protest movement in January, emerging as its tactical leader and often playing mediator among its factions. Analysts speculated that the attack could have been carried out by government forces who resent his role in the movement or by a protester hoping to turn him into a martyr and strengthen the movement's resolve.
"It's too early to say who's responsible," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a research fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. "But it will definitely make the Red Shirts more determined and could even draw in more of their supporters from northeast Thailand."
The shooting marks the return of violence to a struggle many hoped was winding down. Nearly 30 people have been killed by grenades and assault rifle fire since the latest round of rallies began in mid-March.
The protesters have called for the government to resign and for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to leave Thailand, but Abhisit has pledged to restore order.
Last week, the prime minister offered electoral reforms and early elections if the protesters would evacuate their sprawling downtown encampment ringed with used tires and bamboo staves.
But any hope of a compromise was dashed when Red Shirt leaders pressed for criminal charges against the deputy prime minister, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, whom they accuse of masterminding clashes between the military and demonstrators April 10 that left 25 dead and hundreds injured.
In recent days, the government apparently has shut off electricity to the area where protesters are camped, even as the army set up choke points to prevent more from arriving. The number of demonstrators in the core of Bangkok, the capital, has dwindled to fewer than 10,000 from a high in March of roughly 150,000.
The military would probably need at least 9,000 soldiers to secure the protest area, according to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, who added that the cost of the operation and damage to glitzy up-market shopping malls nearby could be "enormous."
Khattiya's support for the anti-government movement was evident well before he was formally "suspended" from the army in January. In 2008, with relations strained, a commanding officer reassigned him to teach aerobics. "I have prepared one dance," Khattiya responded. "It's called the 'Throwing a Hand Grenade Dance.' "
In a recent TV address, Abhisit linked Khattiya to terrorism, and the general is wanted for violations of Thailand's emergency decree.
Since January, Khattiya has openly challenged top army brass and assembled a militia to protect protesters. Despite his popular support among anti-government hard-liners, he has been disavowed by the movement's core leadership for openly fomenting violence.
"This shooting will only complicate things," Chachavalpongpun said. "I expect we're looking at weeks or even months of continued unrest."
Times staff writer Magnier reported from New Delhi and special correspondent Winn from Bangkok.