BANGKOK — Former Pheu Thai politician Apiwan Wiriyachai was cremated today in a ceremony that turned into the largest public gathering of Redshirt supporters since the military coup on 22 May.
Apiwan, a longtime ally of Redshirt icon and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, died of lung cancer on 6 October at the age of 65 in the Philippines where he was living in exile.
The former Pheu Thai MP, who also served as Deputy House Speaker, was widely admired by the Redshirts, as evident by the approximately 10,000 supporters who attended his cremation ceremony at Bang Phai Temple in Nonthaburi province today.
The ceremony was headed by Thaksin's younger sister and former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose Redshirt-supported government was toppled in the 22 May coup.
The flame used in the cremation was provided by the Royal Household Bureau; Apiwan was eligible for the honour because he served in the military and attained the rank of colonel.
Other prominent Pheu Thai politicians and Redshirt leaders also attended the ceremony, including Jatuporn Prompan, Nattawut Saikua, and Thida Thawornseth.
The funeral was the biggest public gathering of the Redshirts since the military ousted Yingluck's pro-Thaksin government and banned all political activities.
In compliance with the ban, most Redshirt leaders have kept a low profile in recent months.
This evening, soldiers were deployed on the roads around Bang Phai Temple and many police officers were posted at the temple to observe the cremation.
However, there were no political activities or speeches at the ceremony, as requested by authorities. Former PM Yingluck, who had to struggle to make her way through the large crowds of Redshirts, left the venue without speaking to the press after she laid down a symbolic flower over Apiwan's coffin.
Siriwat Chupamatta, who helps coordinate the Redshirts' umbrella organisation the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), dismissed concerns that Apiwan's cremation would be used as an opportunity to rally against the military junta.
"Redshirts are not obsessed with politics so much that they will use Apiwan's funeral as a way to coordinate and plan a rally," Siriwat said. "That would be disrespectful to Apiwan. Redshirts know full well when it's inappropriate to do political activity. Since the NCPO and the government have promised an election by 2016, the Redshirts accept that."
He also said that the UDD even invited Maj.Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, a spokesperson of the military regime, to join the funeral so he could see for himself that the ceremony did not turn political.
Apiwan is the first Thai politician to die in exile in recent history. The former Pheu Thai MP fled the country shortly after the coup, along with many other politicians and activists who left to avoid persecution by the junta.
In July, police charged Apiwan with lese majeste – insulting the monarchy – for comments he made in one of his public speeches. Authorities have been trying to extradite the former MP to face trial in Thailand, where lese majeste is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Yesterday, junta leader and Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha urged all dissidents to come home from exile and contest their charges under Thailand's justice system.
"Please come home,” Gen. Prayuth said in the press conference yesterday. “Living abroad is not comfortable at all, unlike living in Thailand.”
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