Saturday, January 23, 2010

Rogue Thai general gives Bangkok the jitters

Thai police have found caches of weapons in the houses of rogue army Major-General Khattiya Sawasdipol and some associates in a raid, bringing the underlying volatility of the country’s political conflict into sharp focus. The major-general is now under investigation over a grenade attack last week on a building in the Thai army’s headquarters in Bangkok, which houses the office of army chief Anupong Paochinda.

Nobody was injured in the attack, which appears to have been meant as a warning.
Days before, Khattiya had been suspended for insubordination over his continued high-profile support of anti-government “red shirts”, as well as an unauthorised visit to Cambodia to meet ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra. The grenade attack spooked the government, and also pointed to the possibility of fissures in the army.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva yesterday called a meeting of the National Security Council, telling reporters afterwards that the government had acted according to the law, so the red shirts had no reason to resent the raids. Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya also briefed diplomats on security measures in the event of protests in Bangkok — especially at the airport — in coming weeks. He spent much of the time explaining the Thai government’s achievements and objectives, while police and army officers were on hand to brief the diplomats about security and contingency plans for ensuring that Suvarnabhumi International Airport stays open.

The focus on the airport was sparked by a plan announced this week by the red shirts of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) to stage protests on the road to the terminal. The stock market dipped on news of the plan, as traders recalled the closure of the airport by the right-wing People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in 2008.

The red shirts, however, have since dropped the idea of the airport protests. Last week’s grenade attack compounded the jittery atmosphere in the capital.
Khattiya, a maverick combat veteran better known by his colourful nickname Seh Daeng, has openly defied the army’s top brass.

After his suspension, he reportedly said that only the Thai king could fire him, and that he could make it difficult for General Anupong to walk the streets if the army chief persisted in targeting him.

In 2008, he gave dozens of young men daily combat training in full public view, saying he was grooming them to protect red shirts from the PAD, which was then campaigning to oust the Thaksin-loyalist People Power Party government. Khattiya relishes the maverick, folk-hero image attributed to him, and is often scornful of “golf soldiers” — indicating a vein of resentment present in some quarters of the army, of officers who are promoted to privileged posts because they are close to some of the capital’s elites.

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