Khattiya Sawasdipol: Popular major-general in the Thai Army who defected to become leader of the Red Shirts

Khattiya Sawasdipol, the Thai army major-general who defected to the anti-government protest movement and was killed in the turbulence which has engulfed Bangkok, revelled in both violent confrontation and media attention. It was his fate to fall victim to a combination of the two, hit by a bullet in the head as he gave a newspaper interview city near the barricades which he organised and regularly inspected.

He died on Monday after being wounded five days earlier. He had played a major part in Bangkok's turmoil, but did not live to see the city in flames after the army moved in to the dissident encampments this week.

Sawasdipol had a particular attachment to hand grenades, often wearing a hat adorned with their pins. The Thai government accused him of involvement in bomb attacks in recent months. He rejected the allegation that he controlled death squads, exclaiming: "I deny". But he did so with a laugh.

He maintained that he knew nothing of a recent wave of bombings. "People kept screaming my name but I had nothing to do with it," he insisted. "I have no guns, but there may be others who want to help – not just help the protesters, they want to help the country. But I don't know who they are."

Within the anti-government movement he was a significant figure, given his military background and media prominence. But he was clearly not representative of the rural poor and the other elements that made up the Red Shirt movement which was involved in the recent unrest. For one thing, he was hugely flamboyant in a way which earned him cult status, but also many enemies. Styling himself as Seh Daeng, or "Red Commander", he compared himself with William Wallace, the Scottish rebel portrayed in the film Braveheart ("Mel Gibson is the same as me," he declared). In autobiographical writings, which he published himself, he was photographed as Rambo, summing himself up by saying: "I am a soldier outside the law."

When he ignored government warnings to stay clear of politics in general and the Red Shirt movement in particular, his superiors ordered him to take charge of fitness exercises. His reaction had a characteristically incendiary tone. "It is ridiculous to send me, a warrior, to dance at markets," he complained. "The army chief wants me to be a presenter leading aerobics dancers. I have prepared one dance. It's called the 'throwing-a-hand-grenade' dance."

His public prominence was due largely to the popular books in which he related his exploits as a daring anti-communist fighter who operated in Vietnam and Laos in support of the US, and as an undercover activist in Indonesia. In common with many of the Red Shirts, he supported Thaksin Shinawatra, the one-time Thai Prime Minister and billionaire (briefly the owner of Manchester City FC) who was forced from office by a coup in 2006 and who now lives in exile in Dubai. The fact that Sawasdipol made no secret of his relationship with the former Prime Minister was hugely troublesome to the authorities, placing him as it did in opposition to the political and military establishments.

Many of the Red Shirts see themselves as opposing Thailand's wealthy élite and peacefully campaigning for elections and greater democracy. But Sawasdipol saw himself as providing a militaristic cutting edge for the movement. It was a role he relished and he is said to have opposed attempts at compromise. "I think we should fight until next December or until the Prime Minister is in jail," he said not long before his death.

He was certainly in the Red Shirt movement's militant tendency and at odds with others in its leadership, accusing them of "colluding with the government". He moved around the Bangkok barricades, posing for pictures and signing autographs. "Everywhere I go people cheer me and ask for my autograph," he boasted.

The end came for him after he spoke to a group of journalists inside an encampment, then lingered to talk to an American reporter. He had spoken of leading a people's army in a campaign which would be "free-form". His last words were: "The military cannot get in here". Then a bang was heard and, according to Thomas Fuller of The New York Times, "The General fell to the ground, with his eyes wide open."

His supporters blamed the authorities for his death. When mourners at his funeral discovered that the army had sent bouquets, the flowers were ripped apart. In the temple, a woman who supported the Red Shirts told Andrew Buncombe, the Independent's Asia correspondent: "He was a hero for us. He died for democracy. If he was still alive, all this would not be happening now. The government killed him."

Another Red Shirt figure was less reverential towards Sawasdipol, saying of him: "He was kind of a loose cannon. Most of us wish he was not part of what we do."

David McKittrick

Khattiya Sawasdipol, soldier, writer: born Ratchaburi Province, Thailand 24 June 1951; married 2006 (deceased; one daughter); died Bangkok 17 May 2010.

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