Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha on Tuesday defended recent remarks by Gen. Apirat Kongsompong accusing politicians and academics of destabilizing the nation and attempting to overthrow the monarchy, as lawmakers summoned the army chief for “clarification.”
Prayuth’s comments came a week after the military filed sedition charges against a dozen opposition leaders and others, alleging that they had stirred unrest when they talked during a forum last month about amending the 2017 constitution.
“I don’t want this thing to cause rifts, and hinder the nation from going forward,” Prayuth told reporters in Bangkok, referring to Apirat’s emotion-packed speech last Friday in which the army chief lashed out at unidentified “communist” politicians and “extreme left” academics.
“In the future we need to be careful and be discrete about the contents [of speech],” Prayuth said.
After reading the text of Apirat’s speech, Prayuth said he determined that the army chief merely talked “about growing patriotism, understanding how the nation came to be and a touch on the situation in the Deep South,” the insurgency-hit southernmost part of the country.
During a lecture on national security at the Army’s auditorium on Friday, Apirat talked about a “hybrid warfare” in which government critics allegedly were exploiting social media to spread propaganda while at the same time using traditional violent means to destroy the nation.
Apirat’s comments did not make it clear that there was no war in Thailand, which has been under junta rule during the past five years, despite a separatist insurgency focused mainly in the country’s Deep South provinces. Prayuth, the former junta chief, began his first term as an elected premier in June after a general election that critics said was engineered to keep him in power.
“Propaganda in Thailand is severe and worrying,” Apirat said. “There are some who can’t give up communism ideology, wanting to overthrow the monarchy and turn Thailand to communism."
“Foreign-educated academics collude with communists and they act as the masterminds,” he said.
As Apirat spoke, a photograph of Thai King Vajiralongkorn, who was then a captain and the crown prince, flashed behind him on a digital screen. The prince was wearing a military uniform and clutching an M-16 assault rifle while running presumably toward an unseen enemy during what the general said was a fight with communist rebels in the northeastern province of Loei in November 1976.
In his speech that lasted more than an hour, Apirat lashed out at opposition politicians whom he did not identify, but the context of his remarks made it clear that he was including Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the leader of the upstart Future Forward Party (FFP) who ran his family’s auto parts empire before entering politics, according to the Associated Press.
Picture sparks criticisms
Apirat’s video presentation showed a photo of leading Hong Kong dissident Joshua Wong standing next to a person whose image had been cropped out. Thanathorn had recently posted a similar picture on his Facebook page showing him standing with Wong.
Thanathorn’s picture with Wong sparked criticisms from China’s embassy in Bangkok, which had issued a statement that slammed an unnamed Thai politician for “supporting Hong Kong activists.” The diplomatic mission, in a statement, also blamed a “group who wants to separate Hong Kong from China and collaborates with outside influences by circulating rumors and distorted information for their own agenda.”
A candidate for prime minister earlier this year after Thailand’s first general election since a military coup in 2014, Thanathorn stopped talking to reporters a few months ago.
At a forum last month in the insurgency-hit Deep South, Thanathorn and other prominent opposition leaders, politicians and academics discussed potential solutions for ending the decades-old separatist conflict, including amending the 2017 constitution written by allies of the military.
Apirat voiced opposition to such ideas.
“I am not saying the constitution cannot be amended, but this section concerns national security and the sacrifices made by our ancestors to protect the country,” he said. “No way, I tell you.”
Apirat previously showed his disdain for FFP. In April, he criticized the party, even though he did not mention its name, implying that it has foreign-influenced ideas that he said were unsuitable for the Buddhist-majority nation’s constitutional monarchy, which he described as “Thai-style democratic system.”
Thais are unlikely to voice many opinions about their new monarch because of the kingdom’s strict Lese-Majeste law that criminalizes royal defamation, according to political analysts. The junta that has ruled Thailand for five years aggressively enforced that law, which makes it a crime to insult the king or the royal family.
The May 2014 coup was launched in part to ensure a smooth royal succession in the fading years of the late king’s reign, according to analysts, and rights groups said the junta has prosecuted about 100 people on charges of violating Lese-Majeste.
Committee summons general
Apirat’s remarks spawned criticisms on social media, prompting the House’s committee on national security to summon him to clarify his comments.
“The committee finds the matter important because of widespread criticism on social media, the committee, therefore, extended the summons to the army chief clarify the matter of security,” spokesman Peeradej Kamsamut said Tuesday. “We hope he will show up.”
On Saturday, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, the FFP secretary-general, slammed Apirat’s comments for attacking the opposition without naming names.
“It is tacit that he referred to the Future Forward Party,” Piyabutr told reporters. “The army chief caused disunity, created hatred and enemies from within.”