Army chief General Apirat Kongsompong has stirred up politics and ruffled more than a few feathers during his two years as Thailand’s most powerful military figure.
He has launched repeated public attacks on certain “unnamed” politicians and political parties, whom he accuses of attempting to divide and destabilise the country, thereby threatening national security.
Apirat, who took over as commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army in October 2018, has slammed “pretend extreme leftists” and those who suffer from the “little emperor syndrome” and constantly demand attention.
He claimed these people were staging a “proxy war” by provoking youngsters to protest against the establishment and insult the monarchy. He also accused them of adopting the so-called “Hong Kong model” – referring to alleged foreign influence in student-led protests in China – for Thai street demonstrations.
Apirat made the remarks while delivering a speech last October, just a month after he secretly met with Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, co-leaders of the now-defunct Future Forward Party, which was pushing hard for changes to Thailand’s political and social structure.
Piyabutr later said that they had discussed the progressive party’s proposal for military reform, adding that no deal had been made.
Apirat, whose mandatory retirement comes at the end of this month, has played a significant role in protecting the monarchy.
After meeting with territorial defence students at Army headquarters in June last year, the general announced that he agreed with the students’ belief that the monarchy is vital for Thailand.
“They said people ungrateful to the monarchy do not deserve to stay in this country,” he told the press.
Then in October last year, Apirat declared in a speech that communists were still lurking in Thailand and were ready to overthrow the monarchy. Critics saw this as a warning to leftist liberals, and described it as a “sensational and biased political message”.
Just a few days ago, General Apirat was appointed as His Majesty the King’s Special Guard along with the chiefs of Navy, Air Force and Royal Thai Police – all of whom are set to retire at the end of this month.
The Royal command on the appointments was announced in the Royal Gazette last Saturday (August 29). In all, 68 high-ranking military and police commanders have been appointed to the regiment.
Early last month, the Army chief further angered liberals when he said, “COVID-19 can be cured, but hating the nation is a disease that has no remedy. We cannot cure people who hate their nation.”
He made the remark while chatting with a group of cadets at a gathering marking the 133rd anniversary of the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy in Nakhon Nayok province.
With a large media presence at the event, the Army chief’s remark was widely reported, prompting heated debate and attacks on social media.
Just last week, Apirat took another apparent swipe at the youth-led protest movement.
After visiting a rehabilitation facility for injured soldiers in Prachuap Khiri Khan, the commander said he felt sorry for those left with scars and permanent disfiguration for “defending Thai soil”.
He also wrote on an Army social-media page that soldiers would “fight endlessly to protect the nation, the religion, the King and the people” and included the hashtag #Won’tLetItEndInOurGeneration.
This hashtag was seen as him mocking the #LetItEndInOurGeneration hashtag used by anti-establishment protesters.
The young protesters returned to the streets in July with demands for amendments to the Constitution, dissolution of the Parliament and an end to the harassment of critics. In the following month, they came up with a 10-point manifesto on reforming the monarchy.
Barely a month after assuming office, Apirat created a media firestorm by claiming that military intervention would be necessary in politics should turmoil surface. However, with rumours of another military coup doing the rounds last week, the Army chief refused to comment.
When asked by a reporter, he only said: “You just referred to it as a ‘rumour’,” and walked away.
Target of criticism
Critics say the general’s frequent comments are tantamount to political interference and accuse him of being biased towards the government, much of which is made up of former or current military personnel.
The Army chief has become the main enemy of young protesters and social-media users who often attack him online. Recently, a protest leader tore up a large reproduction of General Apirat’s image during a rally outside the Army headquarters, while another tried to splash holy water on the complex to rid it of the “demon”.
The general’s wife, Assoc Prof Dr Kritika Kongsompong, however, describes her husband as patriotic.
“We all love the country, but may have different approaches. We all share the same goal – which is progress for our country,” she said on Monday at the Army HQ, where she presided over the opening of a new library as chair of the Army officers’ spouses group.
When asked what she would advise the general to do in response to media attacks, she said: “I want him to be strong. So many things are coming his way.”
Son of coup–leader
Born on March 23, 1960 in Bangkok, Apirat is the eldest son of former Armed Forces supreme commander General Sunthorn Kongsompong and Khunying Orachorn.
His father was a leader of the military clique known as the National Peacekeeping Council, which staged the February 1991 coup that ousted the elected government of Chatichai Choonhavan.
After completing his primary and lower secondary education at St Gabriel’s College in Bangkok, Apirat attended the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School. He then went on to attend Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, where he graduated in 1985.
Later, he picked up a master’s degree in Business Administration from Southeastern University in Florida, also attending military training while in the US, including as a combat helicopter pilot.
He is mainly associated with the 1st Infantry Division of the King’s Guards in Bangkok – whose commanders are known collectively as “Wong Thewan”.
His military clique is believed to be a major rival of the so-called Tigers of the East (Burapha Phayak) – commanders from the Prachin Buri-based 2nd Infantry Division of the Queen’s Guards. The most prominent “tigers” are Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha and Deputy PM General Prawit Wongsuwan.
Among the favourites to succeed Apirat as Army chief is his assistant General Narongpan Jittkaewtae, who has been described as a professional soldier with strict political neutrality.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk