Richard S Ehrlich: Bold, carefree and with plenty of enemies, he was always a target

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Major General Khattiya "Seh Daeng" Sawasdipol is wildly popular among his hawkish supporters – but he also attracted plenty of enemies. Some of them were killed years ago. Yesterday's attempt on his life suggests that others are still at large.

But when I interviewed him in the streets a stone's throw from where he was shot yesterday by a sniper nesting in a high-rise building, he strolled confidently along the barricades, signing autographs, carefree and bold. He allowed himself to be photographed by fawning Red Shirt protesters who he claimed to be defending against Thailand's military-backed government.

Just after sunset, in sweltering humidity, General Khattiya laughingly denied that he was leading a death squad implicated in bombings and shootings to help the Red Shirts occupy the heart of Bangkok. A stocky character who sought the limelight, he flashed a rugged, glaring expression that night while railing against the government and army, who he denounced with expletives.

The army had no affection for him, either, apparently afraid to attack the Red Shirts' barricades in part because of the protection General Khattiya has provided. "Every morning at 4am, I inspect all these barricades," General Khattiya said in Thai during our interview next to barriers built with bamboo spikes, rubber tyres, rags, flammable oil, concrete blocks and razor wire. "Every day I go out and do a reconnaissance. I do a tactical show of force."

And in a declaration which now sounds like an ominous prediction of his own bloody fate, he said: "This government is murdering people."

General Khattiya is an unpredictable character. When he spoke, his eyes went slightly askew, lending his muscular face a menacing air. And he laughed loudly as he mocked the people who were hunting him over claims that he is part of a mysterious group called the "Ronin Warriors".

The government and military blame them for several recent killings resulting from dozens of unsolved bomb attacks on banks, electric pylons, army positions, an airport fuel depot, government offices, and an evening crowd of people near the Red Shirts' barricades. He has been suspected because he has frequently given warnings of bomb attacks just before they occur.

Despite being wanted for alleged terrorism, General Khattiya was happy to be interviewed for 45 minutes in the open, just as he was yesterday. Wearing a camouflage military uniform and canteen – his usual attire – he denied any link to the Ronin Warriors. "Everybody thinks that I am the Ronin leader, the samurai," he said. "I deny. I deny. I am not a Ronin. I only want to fight with peaceful means."

But he made no bones of his respect for the group, claiming that they protected the Red Shirts from a rival, hooded "Men in Black" death squad that he said took the government's side and killed civilians. "The Ronin Warriors help the Red Shirts because the government shoots the people," he said during the interview. "The Men in Black come from the government."

His bravado is perhaps based on his combat experience, which outweighed many officers' in Thailand's coup-minded army. General Khattiya was previously a Ranger, an often brutal paramilitary force which includes current and former troops loyal to him. Born in 1951, and due to retire in 2011, he was an "army specialist" but was "suspended" on 14 January by General Anupong Paojinda for alleged violations. The next day, a bomb exploded in General Anupong's office.

General Khattiya's bitterness over his suspension was still evident last week. "A true soldier like me was never promoted to the position I should be," he said. He retains a furious antipathy for the government forces, deploying the deliberately provocative tone that has won him many listeners. "It is the thought process of homosexuals, using tanks and armour against the population," he said, laughing wildly while describing an evening street battle. "The tactics you are supposed to use are to fight early in the morning, or during daylight hours, not at night. But the army acts with homosexual emotions."

His snarling, insult-laden warnings referred to the army's disastrous failure to crush the Reds' occupation of Bangkok's streets on 10 April, which resulted in 25 deaths and 900 injured.

General Khattiya said a Ronin Warriors' assault with grenade launchers killed several senior military officers during those clashes, forcing the army's retreat. The Ronin Warriors opened fire after the "Men in Black" aided the government's side and killed civilians, he said. No one has independently confirmed those claims. But partly due to the Ronin Warriors' willingness to help the Reds fight back, the military was unable or unwilling to use force again to end the Red Shirts' occupation of Bangkok's streets, which began two months ago.

It remains to be seen whether Kattiya's shooting changes that situation. But last week he was confident that the army could not break through. "There is no way for the army to dig a fortified position here on these streets," he said, an assertion that now carries more than a trace of irony. "The army will be standing out as targets." He didn't seem to care that evening that he too was standing out on the sidewalk of a wide street across from Silom Road, a main commercial street near where he would later be shot.