ARMY chief General Apirat Kongsompong
ARMY chief General Apirat Kongsompong

Army chief’s comments a threat to democracy: scholars

politics April 03, 2019 01:00

By Supalak Ganjanakhundee
The Nation

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ARMY chief General Apirat Kongsompong’s provocative comments against foreign-educated politicians with leftist leanings and activists is a threat to democracy and could lead to social unrest, violence and even collapse of the regime, prominent scholars and rights defenders warned yesterday.

“Those who graduated from abroad shouldn’t bring extreme leftist ideology to topple the Thai democratic regime with the monarchy as head of state,” Apirat said at a press conference held to mark the 112th anniversary of the First Infantry Division (King’s Guard).

“Students, scholars and even government officials, no matter where you graduated from, should bear in mind that democracy needs to be adjusted in line with local culture and norms,” he said. 

“We are Thai and this is Thai democracy. You have to adapt what you have learned to fit within our country,” he said. “Thai democracy is the notion of Thais love Thais, and we are united.”

Though the Army chief did not mention any group, he was clearly referring to comments posted on social media – a weapon that he said is more powerful than military hardware – that labelled one political group as a democratic force and the junta as dictator. 

The Army chief called on all parties to accept the rules set and enforced by the Election Commission. “Like a football match, if a team loses, the fans have to accept defeat too,” he said.

The connotation of democracy versus dictatorship is a political discourse created to divide voters, he said implying that a six-party coalition led by Pheu Thai, calling themselves the pro-democracy camp, are competing with the pro-junta Phalang Pracharat Party to form a government. 

“Let me ask if the NCPO [National Council for Peace and Order] is a dictator? Is our work over the past [five] years that of a dictatorship?” asked Apirat, who is also the NCPO secretary-general. 

Human Rights Watch’s Sunai Phasuk, meanwhile, said military coups and military interference in politics are the biggest threats to Thailand’s democracy. 

Hence, he said, instead of denouncing people’s demand to end military dictatorship, the Army chief should take his troops back to the barracks and end all forms of meddling in politics. 

“The right way to ensure stability and reconciliation is to respect differences and peaceful coexistence in society, not repression and prosecution of dissenting voices. That is why the military needs to give power back to the people and return the country to democratic civilian rule,” Sunai told The Nation.

Paul Chambers, an expert on military affairs from Naresuan University, said Apirat’s comments were clearly directed at Future Forward Party, as he detests the party because of its anti-military standpoint and political reformist nature. 

“Hence he has joined the chorus of those already attacking Future Forward for somehow being a threat to Thailand’s constitutional monarchy. But his words amount to simple intimidation of a party that is simply seeking democracy,” he said. 

The Future Forward’s secretary-general, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, who graduated in law from France, is in the hot seat as ultra-rightists are accusing him of championing an anti-monarchist ideology with the intention of toppling the institution of monarchy. 

Many have twisted Piyabutr’s lecture on the role of monarchy in the justice system, painting the scholar-turned-politician as a threat to the monarchy.

In a Facebook comment, former senator and academic Jermsak Pinthong said that using anti-monarchy comments as hate speech against Piyabutr would only give rise to social unrest and eventually hurt the monarchy. Jermsak, a former economist at Thammasat University, cited the anti-monarchist notion that the rightists used to spread hate against students before the Thammasat massacre on October 6, 1976. 

“It will be good for our society if all groups stop bringing this highly revered institution into the political sphere,” he wrote on Facebook. 

Meanwhile, former Thammasat rector and prominent historian Charnvit Kasetsiri used the Thai proverb “iron loses its strength when it rusts inside” as a metaphor to warn people that sometimes one ends up destroying what they want to preserve. 

“The administration of the ancient Ayutthaya kingdom had collapsed from inside long before the Burmese came and toppled it,” he warned.