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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
News
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
Sport
Sean Abbott
cricketSean Abbott is named Australia's young cricketer of the year
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

£16500 - £16640 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing Finance compa...

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory Solicitor / Compliance Manager - Surrey

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - SENIOR POSITION - An excellent senio...

Recruitment Genius: Inbound & Outbound Sales Agent

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Inbound & Outbound Sales Age...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Urgent - Cheshire - £25p/h

£20 - £25 per hour: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group have been engaged by a hu...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea