Army Chief Sends Warning to Critics of the Monarchy

In this Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, file photo, Thai army chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong reviews the guard of honor during the Royal Thai Armed Forces Day ceremony at a military base in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: Sakchai Lalit / Associated Press
In this Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, file photo, Thai army chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong reviews the guard of honor during the Royal Thai Armed Forces Day ceremony at a military base in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: Sakchai Lalit / Associated Press

BANGKOK — Thailand’s influential army chief warned Tuesday that the military will fight any moves that threaten the country’s system of constitutional monarchy with the king as head of state, in an apparent threat directed at supporters of a new anti-junta party.

“The army does the army’s duty, which is to protect, maintain, and defend the institutions of nation, religion, and monarchy,” Gen. Apirat Kongsompong said at a news conference.

Apirat appeared to be targeting intellectuals backing the Future Forward Party, which according to preliminary figures ran a strong third in the March 24 general election.

Apirat’s words “come as an intimidating knock-out punch against any Thai political critics of Thailand’s system of government,” said Paul Chambers, a lecturer in political science at Naresuan University in northern Thailand. “But more explicitly, the words seem to attack Future Forward Party, whose leaders have seemed particularly critical of the junta and military, and who in the past discussed the monarchy.”

Future Forward Party co-founder Piyabutr Saenkanokkul used to be part of the Nitirat Group, legal scholars who sought reforms in Thailand’s lese majeste law, which carries stiff prison terms for people found guilty of defaming the monarchy.

Apirat suggested that scholars who have studied abroad may have lost their understanding of the “Thai-style democratic system.”

Pitabutr received his master’s and doctoral degree in France, and other prominent members of the Nitirat Group studied law in Germany.

“Don’t introduce the leftist views you learned that made you all pretentious,” Apirat said.

The military-backed Phalang Pracharath Party won the most popular votes in the March polls, and its candidate, Prayuth Chan-ocha, is likely to become prime minister, but could end up with the opposition holding a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. Prayuth led a 2014 coup that ousted an elected government and since then has served as junta chief and prime minister.

Supporters of the Future Forward Party believe the courts and the Election Commission may try to disqualify some of its winning candidates, or even the entire party, ahead of the release of official election results on May 9.

Thai social media since the election has been buzzing with postings seeking to discredit the Future Forward Party.

One recently circulated video shows excerpts of a lecture Piyabutr gave in 2013, when he taught law at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. He has said it was to explain the relationship of democracy to monarchies in political systems worldwide. But it has been cast by his party’s opponents as criticism of Thailand’s monarchy.

An obscure right-wing group, Political Civic Group, said it has filed a complaint with the Election Commission about Piyabutr’s statements, claiming they violated election law. He has denied the allegations against him and charged the video was taken out of context to undermine him.

Apirat also criticized activists who charge that the Election Commission mismanaged the polls and are seeking to impeach its members.

“Once the referee has made a ruling, you blame the referees. When boxers fight, this guy loses, and you blame the referees. If it’s like this it will never end. It will be a never-ending cycle of revenge and disapproval. How can it end? I’ve said already,” Apirat said, before taking a long pause. “I don’t want to say something too harsh.”

After becoming army commander, Apirat told reporters last October that he refused to rule out more coups if there is political unrest.

“If politics does not create riots, nothing will happen,” he said.

His father, Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong, helped carry out a 1991 coup and served as junta leader for more than a year.

Story: Grant Peck