Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

On guard at Bangkok's frontlines

By Richard S Ehrlich

BANGKOK - He boasts of killing 20 Thai communists and fondly recalls working with the United States Central Intelligence Agency, but denies suspicions that he leads a death squad that is involved in bombings and shootings to help the red-shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship protest group cripple Bangkok.

Major General Khattiya "Seh Daeng" Sawatdiphol is one of the biggest reasons the government and military are afraid to attack the red shirts' barricades and clear them from Bangkok's streets.

"Every morning at 4am, I inspect all these barricades," Khattiya said in Thai during an interview next to barriers built with bamboo spikes, rubber tires, rags, flammable oil, concrete blocks and razor wire. "Every day I go out and do a reconnaissance. I do a tactical show of force."

He is wanted for questioning about a mysterious alleged death squad known as "Ronin Warriors". The government and military blame them for several recent killings stemming from dozens of unsolved M-79 grenade attacks on banks, electric pylons, army positions, an airport fuel depot, government offices and a crowd of people on Silom Road one evening near the red shirts' barricades.

Wearing a camouflage military uniform and canteen, Khattiya denied any link to the Ronin Warriors. But his frequent warnings of grenade attacks - right before they occur - have raised suspicions.

In February, he boasted of training hundreds of former Ranger paramilitary troops to protect the Reds. "If the state clamps down on us, we have to defend ourselves. We and our red shirt brothers may need to resort to weapons," he told reporters at the time.

When he discusses military tactics, people on all sides listen because his combat experience outweighs many officers in Thailand's coup-minded army. His snarling, insult-laden warnings come at a time when the government and military are licking their wounds after the army's disastrous failure to crush the reds' occupation of Bangkok's streets on April 10, which resulted in 25 deaths and 900 injured.

Khattiya said a Ronin Warriors' M-79 grenade assault killed several senior military officers during those clashes, forcing the army's retreat. The Ronin Warriors opened fire after a rival, hooded "men in black" death squad aided the government's side and killed civilians, he said.

"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."

No one has independently confirmed all the facts of who killed whom that night.

Partly due to the Ronin Warriors' willingness to help the reds fight back, the military is unable or unwilling to use force to end the red shirts' occupation of Bangkok's streets, which began on March 12.

The Ronin Warriors could protect the red shirts behind the barricades, Khattiya said.

"I think they can, because the government's soldiers are wearing helmets and bullet-proof vests, and very tight clothing, and they will get very hot and suffer heat stroke" during their assault, he said. "There is no way for the army to dig a fortified position here on these streets. The army will be standing out as targets."

The Ronin have an advantage in urban warfare against the army, he said, pointing at the nearby security forces.

"Here there is a lot of concrete, and all these places where the Ronin can hide behind," he said, gesturing at several tall buildings, including shops, restaurants, offices, a hotel and a hospital.

A publicized rift between the army and police also makes the military vulnerable.

"If the army uses war weapons, the police at the front will turn around against the army, because the police are with the reds. In that event, the Ronin will have an advantage."

He could not, however, guarantee the Ronin would appear in time to rescue the reds.

"The reds have to hang on until the Ronin come to help. If the Ronin don't come, it is over. It is like the movie Braveheart. Thailand's Ronin Warriors use the name to honor stealthy Japanese ninjas. Thailand's version has “assault rifles, M-79 bombs and hand grenades. You don't need anything more than these for close combat like this. The Ronin and the enemy army have the same capability. It is a matter of tactics now."

Another reason Khattiya attracts listeners is because he says things designed to disgust and outrage.

"It is the thought process of homosexuals, using tanks and armor against the population," he said, laughing wildly while describing the evening street battle on April 10.

"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."

When army commander-in-chief General Anupong Paojinda reassigned him to teach aerobics in 2008, Khattiya announced: "I have prepared one dance. It's called 'The Throwing a Hand Grenade Dance'."

Born in 1951, and due to retire in 2011, he is an "army specialist" but was "suspended" on January 14 by Anupong for alleged violations. The next day, a rocket-propelled M-79 grenade exploded in Anupong's office.

"Khattiya's predictions always turn out to be true," a government spokesman, Buranat Samutrak, said in January.

"Everybody thinks that I am the Ronin leader, the samurai. I deny. I deny. I am not a Ronin," Khattiya said during the interview. "I only want to fight with peaceful means."

Cursing, he demanded the arrests of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, Deputy Prime Minister for Security Affairs Suthep Thaugsuban, Anupong, and others because "the government shot the citizens" on April 10.

Khattiya was once a Ranger, an often brutal paramilitary force that includes current and former troops loyal to him.

"A true soldier like me was never promoted to the position I should be. I helped kill 20 people, 20 enemies, and I was wounded." He says they were Thai communists, “killed in a tactical conflict, an ambush” that he led in northern Thailand near the border with communist Laos in 1976.

Some speculate Khattiya is using the reds so a cabal of rightwing military officers and retirees can seize power. Police jailed him for a couple of days in March for alleged weapons possession and helping a criminal suspect escape.

On nationwide TV, Abhisit publicly named Khattiya for the first time on April 25 and said without elaborating: "Everything is connected. All names like Seh Daeng [Khattiya]" and others were "not cases of coincidence".

His website, www.sae-dang.com, is officially blocked in Thailand but his books are bestsellers and he occasionally appears on TV talk shows. The major general is friendly with Thaksin Shinawatra, the former billionaire prime minister who was toppled in a 2006 military coup. Thaksin is an international fugitive dodging a two-year jail sentence for corruption. He is close to the reds shirts.

"On March 9, I was in Dubai and saw Thaksin and spoke with him, and [on May 3], I spoke on the telephone with him. I explained to Thaksin how the army committed murder on April 10, and how they are now bringing tanks and will do it again. I told him now we have to fight. They will shoot women and children. I also described the barricades here." because Thaksin is one of the reds' top leaders.

Other red leaders have distanced themselves from Khattiya, fearing his image is too violent. In turn, he has condemned them for recently retracting a barricade from a hospital.

"The red leadership don't agree with me, and they lost all this land by moving the barricades," he said, pointing at an unblocked street in front of Chulalongkorn Hospital.

The reds were denounced as thugs when some of them stormed the hospital on April 29 to search for army snipers, and left without finding any.

"There were soldiers inside," Khattiya insisted. "The red leaders are assuming the posture of retreating, but the red citizens are not. People said the red shirts were becoming stronger than Thaksin. Now the red shirts are going over the heads of the red leaders. They are scared their leaders will give up."

He said Thaksin told him on the telephone: "'Don't let a lot of people die. I don't want a lot of deaths. You have to hold back the army.'

"Thaksin has no idea about the tactics of fighting. But he's a nice guy."

Khattiya is also fond of America, which he has visited several times, including when his daughter recently graduated from George Washington University in Washington DC, he said.

"Earlier, I took General Vang Pao, from the Hmong resistance, to America."

Vang Pao was an infamous leader of the CIA's failed "secret war" in Laos up until 1975, when communists achieved victory alongside communists in Cambodia and Vietnam against the Americans.

Khattiya said he helped smuggle Vang Pao across Thailand into Malaysia. "I stayed with him in a safe house. I took Vang Pao out to Penang, and sent him to America. I also did fundraising with Vang Pao in America, for the anti-communist effort," during the past few decades.

Vang Pao was arrested in 2007 and charged with trying to purchase an anti-aircraft Stinger missile and other weapons in California, and was jailed for several months before being released and acquitted, though others in his group were sent to trial.

"I have a history of working with the CIA as well," Khattiya said, referring to US and Thai efforts to kill Communist Party of Thailand suspects during the 1970s.

Khattiya said he had a message for US President Barack Obama: "This government is murdering people. Bring the United Nations in, because it is going to be like Pol Pot, Mussolini and Hitler."

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California. He has reported news from Asia since 1978 and is co-author of the non-fiction book of investigative journalism, Hello My Big Big Honey! Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His website is www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com.

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