Hope is rising that Thailand will return to civilian rule with a general election next February, more than four years after the military staged a coup in May 2014. But the country now has a younger hawkish Army general, whose father was also a junta leader 27 years ago.
Army chief General Apirat Kongsompong, who was promoted to his new position in October, has suggested he would stage another coup as a last resort to protect the monarch. Describing junta leader and prime minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha as his role model, the new Army chief has never pretended to be pro-civilian. His father, the late General Sunthorn Kongsompong, staged a coup in February 1991.
But Apirat would do well to recall the fate of his Kongsompong Senior, who toppled the government “to protect the King”, but later found himself unwanted because of his failure to set a good example to the nation.
Apirat’s invoking of the same pretext to seize power suggests the Thai brass feel they still have considerable support for non-democratic governance. This heralds a dismal future for Thai democrcacy.
I recall an amusing incident involving a Thai coup leader many years ago.
Indonesian state-owned television network TVRI and a national newspaper reported that the general’s first wife caught him dancing with his mistress, not long after his successful coup, at a military reception.
I joked about the scene recently with my Thai friend Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, who was released in April after serving seven years of his 11-year sentence for lese majeste. When Somyot visited the Jakarta Post last month, he confirmed the reports were about General Sunthorn.
Sunthorn ousted Prime Minister General Chatichai Choonhavan on February 23, 1991, but the scandal apparently diminished his strongman image and his regime only survived for about a year.
General Prayut has fared much better, ruling Thailand as a dictator since May 2014, after overthrowing the democratically elected Yingluck Shinawatra. After repeatedly breaking promises to hand back power to an elected government, Prayut’s latest promise is to hold an election on February 24. But his royalist Army chief has refused to rule out another coup.
“Thailand has had more than 10 coups, but it’s no longer like in the past because the recent ones occurred due to politics,” Apirat told journalists.
The 58-year-old general also branded a group of petitioners, who urged HM King Maha Vajiralongkorn to remove the junta, as “insane”. “The majority of those who slander the monarchy are mentally insane and those who are not insane have strange ideas,” Apirat said.
Prayut, meanwhile, pledged he would do his best as Asean’s new chairman during its leaders’ summit in Singapore last month. “I give you my word,” the prime minister said.
Hopefully his assurance also applies to his promise to his own nation that he would end his dictatorship as soon as possible. Prayut’s position as chairman of the 10-member trade bloc has clearly played a role in his determination to return political sovereignty to the people. Now he is confident of gaining a mandate from the people at the election to continue to rule Thailand.
The junta on Tuesday lifted the ban on political activities ahead of the promised election next February.
Hopefully, the Thai people will again enjoy full democracy, but the threat of a new coup will continue to overshadow them.
Today Apirat has a golden chance to go down in history as a general who was on the frontline supporting the return of civilian rule. Or he could repeat the history forged by his father.
Prayut has a last chance to prove that he deserves the position as chairman of Asean by ensuring a fair and democratic election next February.
The Thai people are the rightful holders of national power. But Prayut also has the right to contest the election and therefore to extend his rule under more democratic conditions.
The Army chief, however, should resist the temptation to follow in his father’s footsteps. Thailand has suffered decades of military misrule.
Don’t let history repeat itself, general.