x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Rogue general and Red Shirt champion

Much loved and widely loathed, Major Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol was a fearless, flamboyant champion of the former Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. His death in Bangkok at the hands of a sniper will ensure the cult status he enjoyed in life will endure.

Major Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol, right, at the anti-government protesters' rally in Bangkok.
Major Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol, right, at the anti-government protesters' rally in Bangkok.

Much loved and widely loathed, Major Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol was a fearless, flamboyant champion of the former Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. His death in Bangkok at the hands of a sniper will ensure the cult status he enjoyed in life will endure. Glorying in the name, Seh Daeng, the Red commander, he revelled in the role of rebel soldier, strategist and spokesman for the Red Shirt movement - anti-government protesters who had occupied the government district of Bangkok since March.

Born in Ratchaburi, one of Thailand's central provinces, west of the Thai capital, he was the son of a captain. In the 1970s, after graduating from the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, he was appointed to the internal security operations command and for three decades fought communists in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and extremists in Indonesia. In a series of best-sellers, Khom ? Seh Daeng, he recounted his adventures - helping the US spy on North Vietnam, spiriting the royalist Gen Vang Pao out of Laos, taking part in CIA-backed raids into Cambodia and infiltrating rebel Muslim groups in Aceh.

A celebrity at home, he also courted controversy. In 2006 he was convicted of defaming the acting national police chief for criticising his action against gambling dens. After the coup that ousted Mr Shinawatra in 2006, Gen Sawasdipol came out in favour of the Red Shirts, Mr Shinawatra's supporters drawn mainly from the rural poor. In October 2008, he announced he would mobilise supporters against any coup attempt. The army commander, Gen Anupong Paochinda, reassigned his outspoken general as an aerobics instructor. Gen Sawasdipol countered: "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."

Inevitably, on January 14 this year, after a committee found he had breached army discipline, Gen Sawasdipol was suspended by Gen Paochinda. The next day the general's office in army headquarters was destroyed by a rocket launcher. In March, Gen Sawasdipol was said to have visited the billionaire Mr Shinawatra - briefly the owner of Manchester City FC - who is now living in exilei. Later that month the Red Shirts occupied Bangkok's government district, calling for an immediate dissolution of parliament and claiming that the coalition government, led by an Old Etonian, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was illegitimate.

At the demonstration's height, there were estimated to be 140,000 protesters. Gen Sawasdipol joined them and began to advise them on their defences - drilling Red Shirt guards, building and inspecting street barricades of wire, tyres and bamboo, signing autographs and boosting morale. He was also readily available to the media - granting interviews, full of bravado. Habitually clad in camouflage fatigues and a floppy jungle hat adorned with grenade pins, Gen Sawasdipol cast himself as William Wallace, the rebellious Scots warrior played by Mel Gibson in Braveheart. "Nobody messes with me," he would say, "I am a warrior, I am Seh Daeng.

An abidingly loose cannon, it is unclear if he was ever at one with them, but he became estranged from core Red Shirt leaders. He did not consider them sufficiently hardline and accused them of collusion with the government. He vowed to fight "until next December or until the prime minister is in jail." On the evening of May 13, within the barricaded intersection of the Sala Daeng skytrain station, while conducting an interview with The New York Times, Gen Sawasdipol was shot in the head. As the reporter, Thomas Fuller, described it: "The general fell to the ground with his eyes wide open, and protesters took his apparently lifeless body to the hospital, screaming out his nickname." He died there four days later. His killer has not been identified. His last words were: "The military cannot get in here."

Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol was born on June 24, 1951 and died on May 17. His wife predeceased him. He is survived by a daughter from whom he was also estranged as she was a supporter of the yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy. King Bhumibol is said to have paid for his funeral. * The National