An overtly political speech delivered by Thai Army chief General Apirat Kongsompong on 11 October prompted strong reaction in the country for its partisan targeting of popular opposition politicians as threats to national security.
The general’s special lecture on “Our Land in Security Perspective” — held at the Army headquarters in Bangkok in front of a 500-member audience of senior military officers, business leaders, scholars, students and media representatives — depicted new threats and employed dated anti-communist innuendo.
General Apirat commenced his military career after the end of anti-communist counter-insurgency warfare in Thailand in 1985. But in his lecture he attributed his patriotic spirit to his father Sunthorn Kongsompong, a former armed forces commander-in-chief. General Sunthorn led the coup that toppled the elected government of Prime Minister Chatchai Choonhavan in 1991. It is for that role that he is best remembered. However, Apirat revealed in his lecture that his father had also suffered minor injuries during an operation against communist insurgents in 1972. “I was only twelve years old back then, and asked myself why my father got shot. It was because he served the country as a soldier, and I wanted to be like him”.
King Vajilalongkorn, then Thailand’s crown prince, actively participated on the ground in a counter-insurgency operation in the northeastern province of Loei in 1976. “His Majesty, Rama X, was at the operations base, ate and slept like other soldiers. He gave moral support and fought shoulder to shoulder with brave soldiers”, Apirat noted on 11 October, while asserting that the royal institution and the military are inseparable in the battle to protect the nation.
Apirat argued that, while the Communist Party of Thailand surrendered in the late 1980s, many former communist insurgents who became scholars, politicians and activists, had never given up the ideology of opposing Thailand.
The Army commander highlighted ex-communist politicians and ‘pretentious’ extreme leftists who graduated from institutions in a foreign country that took territories from Thailand, then known as Siam, during age of Western imperialism in the late nineteenth century. Mainstream Thai historiography holds that Laos and much of Cambodia were part of Siam before France occupied them. France also had a record of anti-monarchism, as Pridi Banomyong — a leading figure in the replacement of Siam’s absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy in 1932 — studied there.
Propaganda, sedition, protests, and misinformation including fake news — all components of hybrid warfare — are today mainly the work of those former communists who remain committed to overthrowing the monarchy and turning Thailand communist, Apirat alleged in his lecture.
The Army commander did not name any particular persons, but he linked opposition Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Jungroongruangkit with Hong Kong protestor Joshua Wong by showing a picture of the latter posted on Facebook from which Thanathorn’s image was removed and replaced with a silhouette. He accused Wong, who was blacklisted and denied entry into Thailand three years ago, of conspiring to cause unrest in Thailand. “Let me ask students here, if one day somebody used social media to call for an uprising [like that in Hong Kong], would you come out to join it?” Apirat urged his audience to “remember what happened in 2010 when our country was in flames”. This was a reference to the military crackdown against Red Shirt protestors in May of that year, when Apirat was seen firing at the group during an operation.
Thanathorn and Wong separately confirmed to the Thai media that they had just met by chance in Hong Kong and briefly exchanged views on the situation there.
The Future Forward Party’s secretary general, the French-educated former law lecturer Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, called a briefing at the party’s headquarters on the day after Apirat’s speech. He argued that the Army commander was trying to use a wedge to open up political divisions and cast people with different political ideas as Thailand’s new enemy.
The chairman of the security committee of the House of Representatives Lieutenant General Phongsakorn Rodchomphu, deputy leader of the Future Forward Party, summoned Apirat to testify on 21 October. He sought to give the Army commander an opportunity to clarify the message of his lecture and to exchange views on security matters.
Activist Srisuwan Janya also filed a complaint with the National Anti-Corruption Commission. He accused the Army commander of violating the military code of conduct and military law for not abiding by the principle of political neutrality. The activist also lodged a petition against Thanathorn for his meeting with the Hong Kong protestor.
Apirat delivered his special lecture a week before the lower house of the Thai parliament was to debate the government’s budget bill. The bill passed its first reading on October 18 with the support of a bare majority of 251 of the 500 members of the house. Opposition parties argued that the bill allocated excessive funds for national security and the purchase of military hardware. The government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha proposed to spend 482 billion baht on security and defence — 13.4 per cent of total proposed government expenditure during the 2020 fiscal year. The Defence Ministry alone was to receive a budget of 233 billion baht, an increase of six billion baht from the current year.
The seven opposition parties abstained from the vote on the budget bill and vowed heavily to scrutinise proposed spending during the second reading of the bill. And, in fact, the Army commander had during his speech labelled politicians who wanted to cut the defence budget as “nak phaendin” or the scum of the earth, invoking the title of an anti-communist song against people who were allegedly burdens to the nation.
Mr Supalak Ganjanakhundee is Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
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