Part 4: Violence and Crackdown in Bangkok

After the negotiations between the two sides failed, the military took a more central role in operations. A crackdown seemed the most likely outcome as May began.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, by that time, were living inside a military base on the outskirts of Bangkok. There they shared decision making duties with Army Chief Anupong Paochinda, Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and future coup-leader Prayut Chan-ocha.

But before the military could move in, it had to deal with the presence of ‘black shirts’ and the possibility of armed elements within the protests. Among those rumoured to lead the black shirts was renegade General Khattiya Sawasdipol, better known as Seh Daeng. Seh Daeng had broken ranks with the military leadership and openly sided with the protesters.

“Red Shirt” guards kneel in front of pro-red shirt Major-General Khattiya Sawasdipol moments after patrolling the streets outside their fortified camp in the central financial district in downtown Bangkok. A Thai folk hero famed for his purported jungle warfare exploits, Sawasdipol, better known by his nickname “Seh Daeng,” now makes it his mission to protect a sprawling protest site in a Bangkok shopping district. AFP PHOTO/PEDRO UGARTE (Photo by PEDRO UGARTE / AFP)

Thida Thawornsate (Red Shirt Leader): Both Dr Weng and Jatuporn had been telling Seh Daeng to go away almost every day. He was never allowed on stage but was walking around throughout the protest site and people seemed to be happy to see him. I guess they were glad at least one soldier was on their side.

He had guards with him but they were not involved in the protest.

Weng Tojirakarn (Red Shirt Leader and former Pheu Thai MP): We rejected Seh Daeng from joining the Red Shirts since the start. We did not want him on the leadership team. He had his own way of thinking and I had gotten into many arguments with him in the past.

But as for the reports that he was somehow this mastermind that was training a paramilitary force within the protest, that is all nonsense. Why would he train a militia right in the open for the world’s press to see?

The people he was training had sticks and were mostly homeless people in the area, some volunteers and retired soldiers.

I believe that it was a failure of intelligence on the military’s part to believe he was somehow our military leader. They had sticks and slings!

On the evening of May 13, Seh Daeng was shot in the head across the street from the old Dusit Thani Hotel while giving an interview to international press.

Pro “Red Shirt” Major General Khattiya Sawasdipol is carried by supporters after being wounded at their fortified camp in the central financial district of downtown Bangkok on May 13, 2010. Thai protest leader was seriously wounded as gunshots and an explosion rang out at a vast protest camp in Bangkok after the army threatened to seal off the site, a hospital source said. The violence came after Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva shelved a plan for November elections and hopes faded for an imminent resolution to a crippling two-month crisis that has sparked outbreaks of violence, leaving 29 people dead and 1,000 injured.

Khattiya Sawatdiphol (Seh Daeng’s Daughter and former Pheu Thai MP): I never thought my dad was in danger, he never talked about the situation with me. I never thought it would get that far. 

The night my father was killed, I was working at the office in Asok. I remember being so angry that the government had closed down the BTS and it made it really difficult to get to different places.

I got the call in the evening from one of dad’s subordinates that he had been shot, I remember being so shocked but I didn’t think it would be that bad. I asked him where he was shot and he couldn’t confirm so I thought it may have been a ricochet or cross fire. Only later did they call back and tell me he was shot in the head.

My heart sank, I was trying to get to Huachiew Hospital where they took him but it was difficult. I finally took a motorcycle taxi driver there and learned that the police had come up to the ICU and told the doctors that they would arrest my father once he came to.

When I saw him, his head and body was swollen from the wound and it looked very bad. The doctors said it was a tough position [to be in] but we made the decision to keep fighting for his life instead of pulling the plug. He died four days later.

Abhisit Vejjajiva (Former Prime Minister and Democrat MP): [Seh Daeng’s assassination] was something that I was not aware of, nor was it a government operation. We did not have any plans to use violence. We were trying to cordon off the protest and defend the military checkpoints. The only offensive we took was when we wanted to clear up the area at Suanlum.

Khattiya: I believe that the government and the military worked together to target my father.  Anupong Paochinda and Prawit Wongsuwan did not like him, there were disagreements. They couldn’t accept that he was a soldier that broke ranks and stood with the citizens.

I am still angry at them.

Fuadi Pitsuwan (Former Security Analyst with the Cohen Group): I do not even think Abhisit was in control of anything. I don’t feel that he was ever part of the military decision that led to the crackdown. It’s a structural issue because our military elites do not understand the concept of civilian control of the military.

At best, what Abhisit had done was to delay the crackdown, but he neither authorized it, nor had any effective control of the military.

Thai soldiers advance towards a burning bus as they take control of an area around the fortified ”Red Shirt” anti-governement protesters’ camp in Bangkok on May 14, 2010. Thai troops opened fire in a tense standoff with protesters in the capital, where the army vowed to clear an area after clashes left one dead and a renegade general fighting for his life. AFP PHOTO/PEDRO UGARTE (

With Seh Daeng out of the way, the military began making preparations to move in. Checkpoints were enforced strictly throughout key points in the city and military reinforcements were brought into the city.

Abhisit: We did not have any plans to use violence. We were trying to cordon off the protest and defend the military checkpoints. The only offensive we took was when we wanted to clear up the area at Suanlum.

What happened was that we were trying to ask and pressure people to leave the protest. But there were no set dates about when we would move in. And there was a brief period where, and this has been highlighted a lot, before April 10 when we moved in, the soldiers weren’t armed.

After what happened on April 10, it was then necessary to use live ammunition. And with clear and strict rules about when and how they would be used.

The government began broadcasting requests for protesters to return to their homes and that they would commence security operations soon.

Jakajan Saenthong (A Red Shirt protester): We could feel the soldiers start to move in, they had check points at Rang Nam, check points on Rama IV, check points on Phetburi Road. They were trying to make the people starve and give up but we kept fighting.

That’s when they started using violence. They even had a sign in Rang Nam warning people that it was a ‘Life Firing Zone.’

Abhisit: I think there was one day when [the military] put up a warning sign. And it was misinterpreted that it was some kind of threat.

On the morning of May 19, the army commenced its final operation to end the protest. Armoured vehicles, heavily armed soldiers and support personnel moved in on the Red Shirt demonstration site. Despite sporadic clashes, the fighting was over by midday with the Red Shirt leadership offering their surrender.

Thai firefigthers spray water on the barricades of the Red Shirt anti-government protestors camp in Bangkok on May 19, 2010. Hundreds of police and army, backed by armoured vehicles, are converging on the perimeter of an anti-government protest camp in Bangkok. AFP PHOTO / PEDRO UGARTE (Photo by PEDRO UGARTE / AFP)

Jatuporn Prompan (Red Shirt Leader, MP for PPP and Pheu Thai Party): It was about 1:45pm and the death toll kept rising. The last group left in the protest area were mostly women and elderly people and we knew that if the soldiers reached the stage before we surrendered, more people there would die.

I could no longer witness it anymore. I had to make the speech to help the people understand that it was over. They were hurt because whoever was still there at the front of the stage were willing to die.

We had been at it for a long time by that point and we knew the mood of the people, so there needed to be an end to the demonstrations.

Weng: We wanted to find a way to end it without any more blood being shed. We no longer had any conditions by then. We only wanted the people to go home safely as the death toll was already reaching 70-80 bodies.

We did not want to see any more people being killed even though the parliament was not going to be dissolved.

We made speeches convincing the people that it was time to go home and we were trying to make sure that all the people got to the evacuation point at National Stadium before we offered our surrender. I think we all surrendered at around 2 pm and we were taken away to a military camp in Prachuap Kiri Khan.

Smoke billows from a commercial area of Bangkok where Red Shirt demonstrators had their camp in downtown Bangkok on May 19, 2010. Thai protest leaders surrendered and told thousands of “Red Shirt” supporters to end their weeks-long rally after an army assault on their fortified encampment left at least five people dead. Thai fire authorities said that arsonists have set 20 locations ablaze in Bangkok, including a massive shopping mall and bank branches. AFP PHOTO/PEDRO UGARTE (Photo by PEDRO UGARTE / AFP)

As the Red Shirts were surrendering and preparing to leave, fires broke out at the Central World Shopping Mall and around the city. Many pro-government voices have pointed to a previous speech that the Red Shirts had made promising to burn down the city if they were vanquished.

Nattawut Saikua (Red Shirt Leader and former Pheu Thai MP): The words that were picked out to attack me and the Red Shirts is just a few seconds of what was an hour-long speech. It was metaphorical, I did not call on them to commit arson.

Smoke billows from the area next to Rama IV boulevard where groups of hardline Thai “Red Shirt” anti-government protesters fight with security forces after their leaders announced the surrender in downtown Bangkok on May 19, 2010. Thai protest leaders surrendered and told thousands of “Red Shirt” supporters to end their weeks-long rally after an army assault on their fortified encampment left at least five people dead. AFP PHOTO / PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL (Photo by PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL / AFP)

According to official accounts of the events, it was the fires at Central World which led to the infamous incident where Red Shirt protesters seeking refuge at nearby Wat Pathum were shot at by security officials.

Abhisit: We had explicit orders for the military personnel, not to move in from the checkpoints, until the fires [at Central World] happened. And then what happened was we had complaints from the firefighters that they could not move in.

Even in the temple area there was a reporter that was injured and we tried to send an ambulance in. We were met with shooting. So the military, I think, moved in to try to protect the fire engines and ambulances going in. And then the Wat Pathum incident happened.

A soldier (L) assists a ”Red Shirt” anti-government protester to leave a temple which had been turned into a shelter within an anti-government protest site in downtown Bangkok on May 20, 2010. Gunshots rang out near a Buddhist temple in the heart of an anti-government protest zone in Bangkok, and soldiers were advancing on foot along an elevated train track, an AFP photographer saw. Thai security forces stormed the “Red Shirts” protest camp on May 19 in a bloody assault that forced the surrender of the movement’s leaders who asked their supporters to disperse.

Samai Usuwan (a Red Shirt protester and retired civil servant): We could not leave the protest area because gunfire was still coming in from all sides and people could not come into the area either. So a few of us went to take refuge in Wat Pathum.

People were hiding at the back of the temple where the main chapel was and the abbot was telling us that we could stay there, for months even, they would look after us.

I did not see a single weapon among the protesters hiding there. At one point we heard gunfire coming into the temple and we found out that some protesters trying to get inside the temple had died. I remember the nurse, Loukgade, she was manning her medical tent in front of the temple. I talked to her when things were still quiet. She died too.

Many of us stayed until morning, by that time they had dragged the bodies into the communal area of the temple. Some were apparently shot right in front of the temple.

A police officer then came in and told us it was safe to leave and that they would take us home.

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