BANGKOK, THAILAND — As Thailand’s “red-shirt” protesters continue to occupy a swath of downtown Bangkok, defying authorities and occasionally clashing violently with them, concerns are rising over the alleged participation of pro-red disgruntled soldiers.
The presence of these rogue soldiers complicates the task of putting down the red shirts’ antigovernment demonstrations, now in their seventh week, and points to a deepening rift within Thailand’s powerful Army.
On Sunday, Army chief General Anuphong admitted in a televised interview that active and retired soldiers were aiding the protesters, but said that the Army was united in its operations. “If there are any rifts, they are on the individual level,” he said.
For now, security forces are resisting public calls to retake the central district that the red shirts have occupied for the past several weeks.
Their reluctance stems partly from a desire not to repeat the bloody clashes on April 10, in which 25 soldiers and protesters died.
The violence intensified after dark when black-clad gunmen fought alongside the red shirts and picked off Army ground commanders, including a colonel. On April 22 a grenade attack struck a group of pro-government supporters, killing at least one person.
Today, red-shirt protesters vowed to continue their sit-in, after Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva rejected their proposal to dissolve parliament within 30 days, and said Thailand must return to normal before orderly elections could be held.
Red shirt ‘terrorists’
Government officials accuse the red shirts of harboring “terrorists” armed with military firearms and explosives. Red shirt leaders have denied the charges and disowned the shadowy paramilitaries.
The red shirts’ antigovernment movement is supported from exile by former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, whom Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya recently compared to Hitler and Mussolini.
Mr. Piromya berated foreign governments for not apprehending. “He is a bloody terrorist,” he told a seminar at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
For all the hyperbole, there is growing evidence of an armed red-shirt wing, abetted by sympathizers in military headquarters who have leaked confidential plans.
Thai media identified one combatant caught on film during the April 10 clashes as a paramilitary border guard. Security sources say mercenaries with military or police backgrounds are also involved and that training camps have sprung up outside Bangkok.
A shared background
This doesn’t mean that rogue officers like Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol, an ally of Mr. Thaksin who was suspended this year from duty, are taking control of government troops, say analysts and Western diplomats. General Khattiya is a celebrity among red shirts and is known for issuing threats against his enemies.
Divided loyalties among the rank-and-file, most of whom share similar rural backgrounds as the protesters, remain a concern for commanders in the event of a crackdown.
Red shirts can also probably count on the sympathies of Thailand’s police, who have been reluctant to confront them.
“There isn’t a breakdown of the Army command structure,” says Paul Quaglia, director of PSA Asia, a security consultancy in Bangkok. “But it’s hard for them to keep a secret.”