by Jim Pollard
Grenade attacks on protesters seeking to bring down the government have raised fears of armed clashes between opposing sides in Thailand’s divided political scene, along with the role the military may play - or may already be playing - in the country’s increasingly violent crisis.
Each day, Thai newspapers speculate on the military's role in protests by the anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee, led by Suthep Thaugsuban.
The former Democrat Party MP has been happy to fan such suspicions, even warning that pro-government Red Shirt radicals seeking to attack protesters at rally sites in central Bangkok should beware the “Popcorn Warriors.”
Some call them "The Men in Black," "Mercenaries," or "Foreign Forces," others "Watermelon Soldiers," but few doubt that they are one of two shadowy armed units ingrained at rally sites to protect protesters.
The term "Popcorn Warriors" first entered Thai gossip channels - particularly on Twitter and Facebook - after clashes in northern Bangkok's Laksi intersection on the evening of the Feb. 2 election, when gunmen appeared out of nowhere to protect anti-government protesters, prompting widespread speculation.
"It evolved after a hooded man was photographed firing a gun concealed in a corn-seed bag at red-shirt supporters,” the Bangkok Post reported Sunday.
The warriors were thought to have returned last Tuesday when riot police launched an operation to disperse protesters in central Bangkok. Several gunmen dressed in black “turned the tide of the battle against the police, who then became targets themselves,” the Post said.
The effort to disperse protesters ended after those in black fired shots and a grenade at police. Video of the incident quickly hit social media showing a police officer frantically trying to kick a grenade away, only for it to explode as he gets a foot to it.
The encounter left five people dead and nearly 70 injured. Among the dead was a police officer shot in the head.
“Some groups, including the protesters themselves, believe the armed forces are secretly providing protection for the People’s Democratic Reform Committee," reported The Post. The party is commonly known by the initials PDRC.
"The theory holds that these so-called ‘Popcorn Warriors’ are soldiers safeguarding protesters from ‘Foreign Forces’ or ‘Men in Black’ who clashed with soldiers during the 2010 violence and may have come back again to target the protesters,” the Post said.
Another Post report said Thai Navy commandoes were suspected of providing protection for protest leader Suthep, who is accompanied by about 100 security guards wherever he goes.
In a report Saturday, Rear Admiral Winai Klom-in, chief of the Naval Special Warfare Command, the Thai equivalent of the U.S. Navy SEAL unit, denied that he acts as a guard for Suthep, despite attending the party's protest sites.
“I've never even met Mr Suthep,” he told the Post. “Why would I do this? I'm a commander and an admiral. Do you really expect me to do this?”
The admiral said he had been a target of criticism since three of his men were caught among the party protesters, and added that he had only attended the protests in plainclothes because he wanted "first-hand intelligence."
The idea of military officers taking sides in Thai politics is not new. Outside of the country's 11 military coups since 1932 - and seven attempted coups - soldiers are believed to have secretly supported the Red Shirt movement during their 2010 11-week protest against the Abhisit Vejjajiva Democrat Party government.
When the Thai Army broke down barricades and entered the Red Shirt's fortified camp in central Bangkok, some protesters fought back with grenades and guns, eventually setting around 20 buildings on fire
These men became known as "Watermelon Soldiers" because they wore green uniforms but were regarded as "red" on the inside.
The 2010 protests were in support of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shiniwatra, the older brother of Prime Minister Yingluck Shiniwatra, who was overthrown in a 2006 coup, accused of corruption and then fled before the 2008 judgment. He has since been in exile, mostly in Dubai.
With Thailand's police force behind former police colonel Thaksin and the current government, the Thai military appear to be supporting one side while the police line up behind the other.
Such support is not unusual in Thai history. A key reason why the military is believed to be supporting the protesters is that they want to try to limit casualties if the PDRC demonstrators are attacked.
“The ‘Popcorn' factor forces the caretaker government to fight the PDRC on the political racecourse instead of using batons, rubber bullets, tear gas cannisters and live ammunition,” Thai analyst Saritdet Marukatat noted in a column in the Bangkok Post on Monday.
Meanwhile, the failure of Thai police to arrest assailants who have targeted protesters has drawn speculation that police are turning a blind eye.
PDRC co-leader Witthaya Kaewparadai said Friday that the failure of an official security body and police to arrest assailants who hurled grenades near a Bangkok PDRC rally on Friday had led him to suspect them of giving the culprits support.
“Their inefficiency and failure have made the culprits continue to commit more offences, but I personally believe the Police and the (government’s) Centre for Maintaining Peace and Order do not capture any of assailants because they allegedly gave tacit support to them," he told The Nation newspaper.
"Having the CMPO is a waste. It is established only to abuse power and intimidate people. I never expect it to capture the culprits."
Royal Thai Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has made it plain over recent weeks that he is not prepared to take sides because of criticism the military endured after the Red Shirt riots of 2010, which left nearly 100 people dead.
The military was blamed for many of those deaths and there has also been persistent criticism of the army for the coup which deposed Thaksin in 2006 - another reason why they have been so reluctant to take a more active role in the current crisis.
Former Thai Prime Minister Vejjajiva was formally charged with murder in connection with the 2010 crackdown on demonstrators, along with his then deputy, the PDRC's Suthep Thaugsuban.
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