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Thailand: renegade 'red shirt' general dies

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 17 May 2010

As renegade general Khattiya Sawasdipol dies in hospital after being shot in the head, Nick Paton Walsh reports from a Bangkok store looted by anti-government protesters.

Thai anti-government general Khattiya Sawasdipol, also known as Seh Daeng or Commander Red, dies

The general, who commanded the guards of the "red shirt" anti-government protest movement, was shot while being interviewed by Thai and foreign reporters on Thursday, just hours after the army began a blockade of the protest site.

He was dubbed a "terrorist" by Thai authorities, but maintained a cult following among some red shirt protesters.

Rapid gunfire and explosions echoed before dawn this morning outside the luxury hotels bordering the barricaded protest zone, where the military has attempted to seal in thousands of demonstrators camping in the downtown streets.

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One of the red shirt leaders, Weng Tojirakarn, blamed the government for the loss of life during the crisis.

"The deaths have been caused by the government. If the government wants to stop the killing, the government should stop shooting immediately. Immediately," he said.

"We have been demonstrating here for almost two months and before that we have demonstrated many times. There were no losses before but right after the government ordered the shooting there were casualties. The government has caused people to die in the killings, so if the government wants to stop the killing then they should stop firing."

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At least 37 people have been killed and 266 injured since the shooting, according to government figures.

The government deadline of 3pm on Monday (0800 GMT) for protesters to leave their encampment in central Bangkok has passed without incident so far.

The red shirt leaders say they will accept talks with the Thai government as long as a neutral arbiter takes part and troops withdraw. But a government spokesman replied that rioting and violence against troops must end first.

Over the weekend fighting spread to two new areas of the city as the army struggled to maintain a security cordon around the encampment occupying a three square kilometre area of the commercial district.

Below is Thai-based blogger Richard Barrow's map of the present situation in Bangkok, entitled "Bangkok dangerous".

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A sense of impending doom
Channel 4's bureau is in the middle of the red shirts' main camp in downtown Bangkok and, as I walked into work this morning, I realised I’d got used to them being here, writes Bangkok-based freelander producer Kate Parkinson.

They've been outside the office for six weeks now and crossing the huge bamboo and tyre barricades they've erected to fortify their camp has become part of life. I’ve got used to listening to the red leader's impassioned speeches which are boomed out, at almost deafening volume, from loudspeakers dotted around the area. And I actually really enjoy the distinctive folk music they listen to, sometimes even stopping to dance with them.

The atmosphere used to be jovial, almost like a festival. But now it's changed. For the past few days we've worn flak jackets as we walk into work, aware that snipers are dotted around the area and fearful of rumours that the media might be targets.

The journey home is even stranger. The government has cut off power to the area so it's pitch black, and last night our route had to be carefully coordinated following reports of explosions and looting on the road where we’re staying.

Thailand is known as "the land of smiles", but there’s not much to smile about here at the moment. The protesters are trying to stay upbeat, but the army has them surrounded and they've suffered many losses in deadly clashes over the last three days.

Earlier today a plane circled over the sprawling red camp, blasting down a message to the protesters that they had one hour to leave. The deadline passed and nothing happened. Music blared out across the camp as protest leaders tried to keep their weary followers' spirits high.

But as night fell over Bangkok there was a sense of impending doom. No one knows when the army will move in to reclaim the area. But it's assumed they will. They've said in no uncertain terms that they want the protesters to leave, and the reds have proved they will not go without a fight.

History has a habit of repeating itself and there’s a real fear that we could be about to witness a bloody crackdown, alarmingly similar to one that started here 18 years ago today. In the "Black May" massacre of 1992, a military crackdown to disperse anti-government protesters left 52 people dead.

In this battle between the people on the street and the people in power, 37 have died in the last four days. Another 29 people were killed during an earlier failed attempt by the army to move the red shirts from another area of Bangkok, and in grenade attacks across the city.

Any chance of ending of this peacefully has already passed, and there's a fear there could be a lot more blood spilled before this ends.

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Across Bangkok, people are reported to be hoarding food, and hotels are asking guests to leave. Schools are closed, and Monday and Tuesday have been declared public holidays.

The state of emergency in Thailand has now spread to more than a quarter of the country after emergency decrees were declared in five more provinces at the weekend, bringing the total to 22.

In eastern Chonburi province, police say hundreds gathered overnight and were trying to block a major port. A protest leader there threatened to set an oil tanker on fire if the government moved on the Bangkok encampment.

Watching the bottom line in Bangkok
So there I am, taking cover among the burning tyres and incoming gunfire that is the madness that is presently Bangkok - when I thought to myself: "My bottom's starting to feel quite hot". writes ITN cameraman Stuart Webb.

Surrounded by flaming tyres and protesters hurling Molotov cocktails, I thought it must be just the tarmac getting hot. But no - as the pain increased to a point where I felt I was going to vomit, I realised that my bum must be on fire.

I looked down. No smoke - but I had been crouching in a small pool of liquid. I realised immediately I was suffering from a chemical burn. Petrol, battery acid, fertiliser - could be anything.

There was nothing else for it. "Quick, Nick! Get some water down my pants! My arse is on fire!"

So there we were, taking cover from the Thai army firing at us, Molotov cocktails raining down. Flaming tyres. Total pandemonium. And there's Nick, the reporter, with a bottle of water shoved down the back of my trousers.

But we soon ran out of water and my bum went into pain overdrive. "Doesn't look good, mate - think you're going to get blisters." Yep, it's not the news you want to hear.

Then again, maybe not as strange as watching the Thai army fire live bullets into the streets of Bangkok - a city more known for peace and good times.

The whole atmosphere is mad: whole areas of this modern 21st century city reduced to a war zone, with other areas totally deserted, and the international community seemingly just looking on. For anyone who has ever been to Bangkok, what is happening now beggars belief.

"I think I better get to the hospital." The next thing I know, I'm in emergency on a trolley with my bottom in the air and a whole team of medical staff inspecting my bum. I felt a bit silly - out on the streets of this once gleaming and peaceful city people were being shot dead.

The medical staff were great. It was a burn from all the petrol being used to light the tyres. Nick got me a new pair of trousers and the medical staff gave me a surgical shift to wear. I was good to go.

Back on with the bulletproof jacket (I don't know why they say that - it isn't), then my helmet and the camera slung over my shoulder. A short motorbike trip back into the madness.

If you ever wondered how we sometimes get the news to you - well now you know!

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