BANGKOK, Thailand — A rogue army general working with anti-government protesters was shot in the head Thursday while talking to reporters in downtown Bangkok, triggering more clashes that left one demonstrator dead and worsening Thailand’s political chaos.
Gunfire crackled well into in the night after the government declared it will blockade 10,000 Red Shirt demonstrators who have occupied and paralyzed the centre of the capital for two months.
The developments further eroded chances of re-establishing peace in this deeply divided Southeast Asian nation where the mostly rural, poor protesters are seeking to topple the government and hold new elections that they hope will give them a greater share of power.
The Red Shirts have turned a 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometre) area in the posh Rajprasong neighbourhood into a sprawling camp, with portable bathrooms, free food and a stage from which their leaders deliver daily anti-government diatribes.
The streets around it turned into a virtual war zone following the shooting of Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdiphol. Protesters stopped police trucks and forced them to turn back; they hurled rocks at soldiers, who responded by firing live ammunition, said Associated Press cameraman Raul Gallego.
Killed in the shooting was Chartchai Bualao, 25, who was hit in the eye, according to the government’s medical emergency centre. Soldiers resumed firing after an ambulance took his body away. At least seven other people were injured.
Khattiya was shot in the head while talking to a New York Times journalist near the Silom subway station on the edge of the occupation zone. The station entrance is surrounded by tall office buildings, leading to suspicions a sniper fired the shot.
Times reporter Thomas Fuller, answering questions on the newspaper’s website, said he was about a half-hour into the interview when he asked the general, “Do you think the military is going to launch a crackdown, and do you think they’ll be able to penetrate the barricades here?”
“And there was a bang as he was answering it, and I think his last words that I heard were, ’The military cannot get in here.’ And then immediately (he) just fell, just collapsed,” Fuller said. “He was looking right at me. I think the bullet went over my head and hit him in the forehead.”
Wearing his trademark camouflage uniform, Khattiya slumped to the ground and one person cradled his head for a while. Moments later, others dragged him by the legs, his head sliding on the ground and leaving a trail of blood.
The emergency centre said Khattiya was shot in the head and admitted to a hospital’s intensive care unit.
Asked if troops shot Khattiya, government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn refused to give a direct answer. “The operation by authorities was according to international standards and law. So far, we have not found any actions by the authorities that went beyond that,” he told the AP.
About 90 minutes before he was shot, Khattiya gave interviews to a series of foreign reporters, including the AP. The 59-year-old Khattiya, known by his nickname Seh Daeng, said he anticipated a military crackdown soon.
“It’s either dusk or dawn when the troops will go in,” said Khattiya, who was shot soon after night fell.
The Red Shirts demand an immediate dissolution of Parliament. They believe Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s coalition government came to power illegitimately through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military.
Tens of thousands of Red Shirts streamed into the capital March 12 and occupied the historic downtown area. An army attempt to clear them April 10 led to clashes that killed 25 people and wounded more than 800. Another four people were killed in related violence in the following weeks.
On Thursday, the government extended a state of emergency to cover 17 of Thailand’s 76 provinces to prevent more people from joining the protesters in the capital.
The decree gives the army broad powers to deal with protesters and places restrictions on civil liberties. The government spokesman said it is intended to prevent “masses of people trying to come to Bangkok.”
Thursday’s violence was expected to deepen fears of more bloodshed.
“I am gravely concerned about the safety of the protesters,” said Tyrell Haberkorn, a political scientist at The Australian National University. “Long-term, the outlook for peace and democracy in Thailand is bleak,” she said in emailed comments.
Khattiya was suspended from the army in January and became a fugitive from justice last month when an arrest warrant was issued against him and two dozen others linked to the Red Shirts for their purported roles in the violence. Yet he wandered freely through the protest zone, signing autographs near government security forces.
The government labeled him a “terrorist” and a mastermind behind some of the violence.
Khattiya helped build the Red Shirt barricades of sharpened bamboo stakes and tires around the protest area, was accused of creating a paramilitary force among the protesters and had vowed to fight the army if it launched a crackdown.
He bitterly opposed reconciling with the government and had become critical of Red Shirt leaders, some of whom had wanted to accept a compromise.
Earlier Thursday, Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said security forces were preparing to impose a lockdown on the protest area. The army spokesman said armoured personnel carriers and sharpshooters would be sent to surround the zone, and power, public transportation and cellphone service were suspended in the area.
The Red Shirts see Abhisit’s government as serving an elite insensitive to the plight of most Thais. The protesters include many supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist leader accused of corruption and abuse of power and ousted in a 2006 military coup.
Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire who fled overseas to avoid a corruption conviction, has publicly encouraged the protests and is widely believed to be helping bankroll them. He claims to be a victim of political persecution.
Associated Press writers Grant Peck and Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report, with additional research by Warangkana Tempati.