Opinion: Trust Thai Army’s “Reform” at Your Own Peril

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

Reforming the Thai army is much easier said than done. After all, the current army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong himself called the Royal Thai Army a “sacred” organization, setting the tone of whatever debate the society may have.

When someone wants an organization to be treated as sacred, it’s often because they want it to be above criticism, accepting neither scrutiny nor accountability. These days, even the Vatican is no longer sacred because it can be openly criticized, yet Apirat said last week that people shouldn’t criticize the army because it’s a sacred organization.

Many people would like to believe in army chief Gen Apirat’s promise to push for reform in the aftermath of a disgruntled sergeant’s shooting rampage which killed 29, mostly civilians. The killings took place after the soldier allegedly got cheated in a land purchase by his own commander, raising concerns over shady business deals and mistreatment in the ranks.

But the sequences of things that followed were not reassuring. First of all, there is still no independent committee set up to investigate the mass shooting.

Or take Apirat’s promise to kick retired generals out of army-owned (read: taxpayers-funded) residences. Just two days later, exceptions were already made for a very long list of about 100 retired generals who are deemed still “contributing to society”.

They include Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-ocha, Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda, dozens of junta-appointed Senators, and even members of the Privy Council.

It was briefly comforting when I called ex-junta leader Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin who led the 2006 coup, which ousted then premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Even the former coup leader agreed it’s wrong for retired generals to be living in public-funded housing, and said Gen. Apirat was right to kick them out.

“That’s how it should be. The regulation is that it’s for serving officers,” Sonthi told me.

Yet when I asked him when he left the army-owned residence, Sonthi, who retired in 2007, said he left almost a year ago.

The sense of entitlement and hypocrisy became more evident as Sonthi insisted that this was okay because he had permission from the army.

This man was a former army chief. When he staged the coup and became junta leader, many of the top generals today probably have him to thank for the promotions, so how could they ever say no to their ex-boss?

When I called Future Forward MP Pongskorn Rodchompoo, himself a retired lieutenant general, he also lambasted the generals’ habit of extending their stay in army quarters. Just days after the interview, it turned out that Pongskorn was also an overstayer himself, a freeloader and beneficiary on my tax payment.

In a twist of hypocrisy that nearly reached the point of absurdity, just hours before the truth that Pongskorn came out, he was haranguing the crowd at a rally about the needs to reform and promote transparency in the armed forces.

That Pongskorn knew all along that he has been staying rent-free at the expense of taxpayers for four years after retirement didn’t prevent him from being lauded by his party as the man who will spearhead armed forces reform. It bothers many, myself included, that the sense of military entitlement is indeed so deep-rooted that it bypasses political divisions.

A more promising aspect of reform introduced was army chief’s decision to set up a hotline to enable low-ranking officers to directly lodge a complaint to him for alleged abuse of power or corruptions by senior officers in the army.

Apirat promised to be judicious. The problem is he is now acting like a one-man kangaroo court as I have heard of no independent committee to review his decision.

On Tuesday he also told the press that he has just transferred an army colonel to an inactive post. No details were given to the public and even army spokesman Col Winthai Suvari told me on the phone that he has no details and only learned about it from the press.

It’s all down to whether you think you can trust Apirat or not.

But let’s give Apirat a little credit for honesty, however. Unlike his predecessor army chief Prayut, who insisted several times prior to seizing power in 2014 that he would not stage a coup, Apirat never committed himself to the same denial.

In fact, he made it clear early on when he took the post of army chief that it all depends on the situation. Let’s hope he approaches corruption within the army with the same frank self-awareness.