Red Shirts defiant as their military leader is laid to rest

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The Independent Online

His skin was waxen and his face bruised, but there was no mistaking Major-General Khattiya Sawasdipol.

The military leader of the Red Shirts had been felled, apparently by a sniper's bullet less than a week ago. Yesterday morning, it was announced he had finally succumbed to the injuries to his brain and, hours afterwards, the renegade soldier's body was brought from the hospital to a Buddhist temple in the old quarter of Bangkok for traditional rites. It seemed as if the entire neighbourhood wanted to pay its respects at the same time.

In a glass-enclosed room where the humid air was soured by the smell of formaldehyde and incense, people pushed and shoved to make their way past the body of the officer, who had been dressed in his usual fatigues and camouflage jungle hat. Some clapped or cheered. Some bowed, with palms pressed together. Others reached out to anoint his right hand with water.

"He was a hero for us. He died for democracy," said Issaree Charoenpakul, 45, a supporter of the Red Shirts, who had made her way from the encampment in the centre of the Bangkok to attend the service. "If he was still alive, all this would not be happening now. The government killed him."

To many of the Red Shirts, Khattiya Sawasdipol, better known as She Daeng, or "Commander Red", was nothing less than a legend. A former soldier who had joined forces with the demonstrators, Seh Daeng enjoyed a cultish following. To the government, the 58-year-old was a terrorist who had abused his position – allegedly to train a force of rebel paramilitaries. It was little surprise, therefore, that the mood inside the temple changed as the crowds discovered bouquets sent by the military and a television channel supportive of the government. Elements within the crowd turned furious and tore apart the flowers.

The tension at the service reflected the uncertainty and concern amid the Red Shirts' supporters yesterday as the deadline set by the government passed for the 5,000 people still holed up in the centre of Bangkok to leave and go home. Earlier in the day, a small plane flew over the camp located in a commercial district, and dropped leaflets urging the people to leave by 3pm or face criminal charges carrying a penalty of up to two years in prison.

The demand had little apparent effect, and while some may have left in the last 24 hours, it appeared last night that most had decided to stay put. Meanwhile, violence continued to rock other parts of the city centre as heavily armed troops clashed with protesters carrying petrol bombs and fireworks. The authorities claim some of the protesters are also carrying guns, though this is disputed.

"We are not yet ready to leave. We have not yet received democracy," said Tom Mai, a 39-year-old woman from the north-east of Thailand, who was sitting in the grounds of a temple inside the Red Shirts' area. One of her fellow protesters, a Bangkok resident who gave his name as Tom, said people had decided to stay. Asked what they would do if troops decided to storm the encampment, he said: "We are ready to fight with our bare hands. We will use our fists to take the guns from the soldiers. How can these soldiers fire on women?"

Yesterday evening the mood appeared more relaxed than it had in recent days. That may have been because of reports suggesting that talks between the protesters and the government could soon be restarted. One of the Red Shirts' leaders, Nattawut Saikua, spoke to the government's chief negotiator, Korbsak Sabhavasu, for five minutes. Mr Korbsak later told reporters the Red Shirts' leader proposed a ceasefire and that he had responded by saying the army would stop shooting if all protesters pulled back to the core protest site. "If they call their people back ... there will be no single bullet fired by the soldiers," he said.

The fighting on the streets of Bangkok has been bloody and brutal. At least 37 people – almost all of them civilians – have been killed by the army and more than 250 injured since last Thursday. Many of the dead were killed by bullet wounds to the head, bolstering the claims of protesters that army snipers have been operating a shoot-to-kill policy.

Large parts of the city have been turned into no-go areas as troops seek to encircle the protesters, who are seeking to force the resignation of prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the holding of new elections. Many of the protesters are supporters of the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was forced from office by a military coup in 2006.

Earlier, the prime minister's chief spokesman told The Independent that the crisis in Bangkok had social causes. In an interview at the headquarters of the 11th Infantry Regiment, where Mr Abhisit has been holed up for almost two months, Panitan Wattanayagorn, said: "The protests are based on political problems that have existed for years. There are political problems and issues such as poverty. On the other hand, the problems are being exacerbated by extremist elements."

A semi-divine monarch

*For a man whose canny political manoeuvring has taken the monarchy from irrelevance to one of Thailand's most powerful institutions, King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been remarkably silent on the latest violent upheavals.

The world's longest-reigning monarch, who came to the throne in 1946 after the mysterious shooting of his brother, is ill and has barely spoken about the current demonstrations. However, he has previously intervened in disputes. On this day 18 years ago, Thailand's premier ordered troops to fire on demonstrators opposed to his rule, killing scores.

Two days later, television pictures showed the King reprimanding the premier and the protest leader, and within hours the crisis was over. Thai watchers suggest the King has rebuilt the state around his throne. He has overseen 16 constitutions and 24 prime ministers while remaining revered as a demigod by many Thais. He is an accomplished sailor and keen photographer.

But the impending succession will be a defining moment. Rumours of the King's death spooked the markets last year. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, seen as an ally of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is unpopular. Many see the current disturbances as part of pre-succession jockeying for position.