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Thailand's deadly weapon of terror

A Vietnam War-era grenade launcher haunts a new generation.

Their aggressive protests have also placed them in the line of fire. In last year’s assassination attempt on the faction leader, media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, his van was peppered with roughly 100 M-16 bullets. An M-79 grenade was also aimed at his vehicle, but failed to explode and harmlessly rolled under a nearby bus.

Sondhi was also targeted by an M-79 grenade during a 2009 speech. It missed his stage but injured at least 12 crowd members. Yet another guns-and-grenades assault on his TV station the year before sent a news anchor scrambling from his desk on live television.

The worst rash of M-79 attacks came in 2008, when the yellow shirts carried out a long-running occupation of government offices and two Bangkok airports. An estimated seven attacks on their rally sites injured at least 75 protesters, leaving many maimed and at least one dead.

But throughout the entire two-year spate of Blooper attacks, authorities have only implicated one man — a wayward 58-year-old Thai army general who claims a history of killing communists with the help of the the CIA. He has more recently become a figurehead for Thais disdainful of what they call the “privileged class.”

Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol, a suspect in the M-79 attack on army headquarters, was charged with owning illegal weapons including M-16 bullets and M-79 shells after police raided his home and the home of one of his associates. Khattiya has denied involvement in the incident.

Khattiya claims to be admired as a battle-proven, hands-dirty swashbuckler by many in the Thai army’s rank-and-file. He openly mocks the top brass, proudly maintains a private militia and has threatened to fight tanks with molotov cocktails if the military stages a future coup.

No matter the mysterious attackers’ intent, more M-79 attacks could give military leaders pretext for a crack down against their critics, said Suranand Vejjajiva, a cousin to the Thai prime minister and political commentator.

This is especially relevant, he said, as Bangkok faces more unrest. A bloc largely representing ruralites and the urban working-class — called the “red shirts” — plan to gather 1 million Thais in mid-March to topple the government, demand new elections and end what they call “aristocratic rule.”

In light of the recent M-79 attacks and looming protests, the current ruling party has readied soldiers and police for riots. Any violence from the red shirts, Suranand said, could inadvertently trigger the restoration of order by force.

“A bomb thrown here. An M-79 shot there. If some blood lets out, there will be an excuse for stopping the process of democracy here in Thailand,” he said. “That worries me.”