BANGKOK — Army chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong on Friday warned student protesters against dragging the monarchy into their anti-government activism.
Speaking with tears in his eyes at a news conference, Apirat urged students to show respect and refrain from using offensive language against the Royal Family. Apirat’s remarks followed some veiled references to the monarchy at the protests, which continued for almost a week on Friday.
“I’d like to ask Thai citizens to set a neutral mind and consider what they see at the protests,” the general said. “I understand that they’re exercising their democratic rights under the regime, but I think those vituperations and inapt language are making many feel uncomfortable.”
Gen. Apirat also said he felt hurt to see such rude and disparaging remarks when the Chakri Dynasty had accomplished so much for the Thai people. But one of the protest organizers said Apirat’s comment reflects his overbearing attitude towards the people.
“He’s belittling citizens’ voices,” Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree, who helped led the Saturday’s large protest, said. “People came out because they wanted to see change. I say it once again that we haven’t been hired or backed by anyone.”
Apirat was speaking on the same day the army held ceremonies to celebrate His Majesty the King’s birthday, which falls on July 28.
Although protest leaders said the rallies were aimed at the government, some of the placards held by many of the protesters went far beyond that goal by making subtle references to the monarchy.
Criticism of the Royal Family is widely considered as a taboo and punishable by up to 15 years in prison under the royal defamation law.
Apirat, an avowed hardline royalist, also characterized the students as part of a “conspiracy” against Thailand’s institutions. He said the army is monitoring their activities, but declined to answer reporters’ questions whether politicians are masterminding the plot.
“I can’t say more than that,” Apirat said. “I’d like to cite a 2015 story by BBC Thai about conspiracy theories. I think it’s interesting because it involves many parties and I see that they’re now operating systematically. We as an army would only keep our eyes on it.”
When asked about the Tuesday rally in front of the army headquarters where activist Parit Chiwarak tore up his portrait in protest, the general jokingly referred to a 1992 superhero film “Batman Returns.”
“It’s fine. I will ask Batman to take care of it because he defeated the penguin,” Apirat said in an apparent reference to Parit’s nickname “Penguin.”