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The 'Red Commander': A soldier to the end

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2010-05-17

De facto "Red Shirt" military chief Khattiya Sawasdipol, aka "Seh Daeng", succumbed to gunshot wounds sustained during clashes in Bangkok. But old soldiers never die, as the saying goes: they only fade away. In death, his influence looms large.

In his trademark military fatigues, brandishing a bamboo stick, Khattiya Sawasdipol, a renegade Thai military soldier, better known as Seh Daeng, cut an arresting figure among the ranks of "Red Shirt" opposition protesters.

For many, he was a cult-like figure, a fighter to the end, which came when he succumbed to his injuries May 17, four days after he was shot in Bangkok whilst giving an interview to a foreign reporter. For others though, he was a dangerous rabble-rouser, one who could not even agree with several political figures within the opposition movement.

Always accessible to the local and international press, Seh Daeng had a penchant for drawing parallels between himself and Hollywood stars, and for likening the opposition cause with that of historic revolutions.

"Here, we’re doing what was done in Paris 200 years ago,” he told FRANCE 24’s Cyril Payen in April. “We want to storm the Bastille.”

Writing - and fighting – his own destiny

Better known as Seh Daeng – literally "Red Commander" – he was defined by one key quality: determination. In 2008, for example, when he was a Major General in the regular army, he wanted to dislodge anti-government protesters by discharging snakes from helicopters, he told reporters. The then Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej apparently refused to sanction the anti-riot method.

His antics, particularly his support for the opposition "Red Shirts", were not favourably viewed by the military, and in January, he was suspended from duty in the Thai army. A report in a leading Thai paper put the official cause of his suspension as "repeatedly defying orders from his superiors to not get involved in political movements, particularly with the 'Red Shirts'".

But even in opposition, he retained his soldierly mien, cultivated, he said, after years of experience in the battlefield, including stints as an undercover agent dispatched to infiltrate Islamist ranks in the Indonesian island of Aceh. He even claimed to have done field intelligence work for the Americans during the Vietnam War. His exploits formed the basis of his popular book series titled, "Kom Seh Daeng” or “The Red Commando”.

At his funeral service at a Bangkok pagoda, hundreds gathered to greet the body of their slain hero, who was dressed in his trademark camouflage jungle hat, in a display of sorrow mixed with rage.

In a possible sign of his power even in death, the funeral service was paid for by the royal family, according to local reports.

His death marks a new stage in the conflict between the "Red Shirts" and the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. “Seh Daeng was leading a big paramilitary force that is quite extreme and now they have no leader. So, we can expect the worst,” said Payen.

Date created : 2010-05-17

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