Red Shirts turn out for protest leader's funeral

Thousands of Red Shirts who just a month ago were encamped in the centre of Bangkok poured into a Buddhist temple today to attend the cremation of an assassinated rebel soldier who had acted as the protesters’ military chief.

Defying state of emergency laws that prohibit meetings of more than five people, the opposition supporters streamed to Wat Somanas, where the body of Maj Gen Khattiya Sawasdiphol – better known as Seh Daeng or Red Commander – was burned, more than a month after his death. It was the biggest gathering of Red Shirts since May 19, when troops and paramilitary forces broke up an encampment of protesters in the centre of the city. Around 1,000 police were dispatched to the temple fearing the prospect of trouble, but the event passed off peacefully.

Seh Daeng was shot last month in the head by a single bullet while being interviewed by an American journalist. Many Red Shirts and analysts believe his death was a precursor to the May 19 operation to move in and break-up the demonstrations. A dozen people were killed and many more wounded that day as troops, using live rounds, rubber bullets and tear-gas forced their way to the intersection where the Red Shirts had barricaded themselves behind tyres and razor wire. The Red Shirts blamed the army for Seh Daeng’s death, though senior officers have denied this.

Among the mourners at the cremation was Saowaros Songcharoen, a 58-year-old housewife from Ayutthaya Province in central Thailand. She told the Agence France-Presse she could not forgive the government for the bloodshed. “They have stamped on democracy,” she said, displaying a picture of herself and the general on her mobile telephone. “If our generation cannot win, our children will carry on fighting.”

To people such as Mrs Songcharoen, Seh Daeng, who had overseen the defences of the Red Shirts’ encampment and had apparently trained a militia to protect the barricades, was nothing less than a hero, a man with almost cult status and whose autograph was often in demand. Yet to the army, and to opponents of the Red Shirts, the 58-year-old was a traitor and terrorist who had thrown in his lot with the protesters and had been suspended from the army for his political activities.

The cremation of Seh Daeng comes amid reports that the Red Shirts, many of them supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and who want the current premier to stand down and call fresh elections, are seeking to regroup. Reports say they are seeking to do so even though many of their senior leaders are in prison or else in hiding, following the government’s decision to send in troops to end their occupation of a central shopping district.

The 10-week protest, that saw repeated clashes with army and paramilitaries, led to the deaths of at least 90 people, almost all of them civilians. Another 1,400 people were injured. The prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, head of the Democratic Party, has set up an inquiry team to investigate the demonstrations and the bloodshed. One of the most notorious incidents for which people are seeking answers concerns the death of at least six people inside a Buddhist temple that had been named as a sanctuary.

The army has denied that it shot at the temple on May 19 but six bodies – all of them bearing wounds from high velocity bullets – the following morning. Among the dead was a female volunteer medic.

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