A Thai gunman who gained national notoriety after opening fire at a political clash with an assault rifle in a popcorn bag said yesterday he had been hired by anti-government protesters.
Pictures of the man, nicknamed the "popcorn gunman", went viral after he was seen during a dramatic gunfight with government supporters in Bangkok on February 1 wearing a balaclava and a bulletproof vest.
He was hailed by some within the anti-government movement as a hero. Wiwat Yodprasit, who was arrested on Wednesday and faces charges of attempted murder and possession of a gun, said yesterday he had been trained to use the M16 rifle by the protesters' private security guards.
The 24-year-old said he was paid US$9 a day to act as a guard for the movement, which is backed by the Bangkok-based establishment and wants to bring about the removal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
"The head of protest security gave me an M16 to use ... I fired 20 bullets. I used the popcorn bag to keep the bullet casings from falling to the ground," Wiwat told a press conference.
The clash broke out during daylight in the district of Lak Si after opposition demonstrators blocked ballot boxes from being delivered for a general election. Protest leaders have repeatedly denied that their guards or supporters carry weapons.
Wiwat was arrested at a temple in the southern town of Surat Thani - the hometown of protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban.
His picture has been widely used by protesters as a symbol of defiance against the authorities and the rival pro-government "red-shirt" movement.
He was identified after police released a picture of him later removing his balaclava.
Protest spokesman Akanat Promphan said Wiwat was being used by police as a "scapegoat", without confirming whether he was a security guard for the movement.
"He did not intend to hurt anyone but to protect innocent people," Akanat said, adding that the protesters will support his legal case.
Authorities seized on Wiwat's confession as further proof that anti-government demonstrators are armed.
"Suthep has repeatedly said that his protest is peaceful. That is absolutely not true," said Labour Minister Chalerm Yubumrung, who heads the government's security response to the months-long crisis.
Meanwhile, an anti-corruption panel suspended the senate speaker yesterday for supporting a failed legislative attempt by the ruling party to make the upper house fully elected.
Nikom Wairatpanij now faces an impeachment vote and a possible political ban linked to the attempt to amend the constitution to reform the senate, Thailand's upper house.
He is one of hundreds of mostly pro-Yingluck politicians charged by the National Anti-Corruption Commission over the bill.
In November, the legislation was deemed to be unconstitutional by Thailand's Constitutional Court.