Thailand's army chief General Apirat Kongsompong. Photo: Bangkok Post/ Pornprom Satrabhaya / via AFP
Thailand's army chief General Apirat Kongsompong. Photo: Bangkok Post/ Pornprom Satrabhaya / via AFP

The new commander-in-chief of the Thai army has warned in a veiled threat that he may unleash a coup if people “create riots” over the results of next February’s promised election.

The polls are expected to be won by allies of the current military regime, itself installed by a putsch four and a half years ago, but a surprise victory could be achieved by their civilian enemies.

Army Commander-in-Chief General Apirat Kongsompong’s remarks coincided with the first visit to Thailand by Admiral Phil Davidson, Commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command.

The US commander’s October 16-17 meetings included 2014 coup leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, his powerful Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and newly appointed Supreme Commander General Ponpipaat Benyasri.

“The US remains committed, as a long-time friend and ally, to working with Thailand in advancing regional security and prosperity,” Admiral Davidson said.

Warning on political unrest

Asked during a news conference if the highly politicized US-trained army, which was placed under General Apirat’s command on October 1, would seize power if the junta’s civilian opponents achieved an unexpected victory in February, General Apirat replied: “If politics does not create riots, nothing will happen. There have been more than 10 military coups in the past, but previous ones were the result of political unrest.”

The military’s most recent coup in May 2014 came after pro-military protesters opposed to the elected civilian government, headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, blocked people from voting for a fresh administration and called on the army to restore order in Bangkok’s bloodied streets.

General Apirat reportedly led a major military unit, the 1st Division of the King’s Guard, during the 2014 coup. Indeed, General Apirat is the son of a 1991 coup leader, then-Supreme Commander General Sunthorn Kongsompong – who was educated in the US Army Infantry School at Fort Benning and the US Army Command and General Staff at Fort Leavenworth – who easily ousted a corrupt civilian government headed by Chatchai Choonhavan.

General Apirat is also secretary-general of the junta’s ruling body known as the National Council for Peace and Order, and he commands its Peacekeeping Force, which controls the army, navy, air force and police.

General Apirat’s warning on October 17 spread fear among Thai politicians, analysts and reporters, who predicted that if pro-democracy groups win against the odds and form a government after February’s election, their fragile administration could quickly be toppled, clamping this US ally back under suffocating military control.

“There have been no signs of potentially serious conflicts or unrest,” the less powerful General Pornpipat said, hoping to dampen anxiety about Thailand’s stability amid efforts to attract international investment, tourists and respect.

“Let us not jump the gun about incidents that have not happened, or are unlikely to occur, and make people worried,” General Pornpipat said.

Defense Minister Prawit said the next day: “What the army chief means is that if the country stays peaceful, there is nothing to worry about. So everything depends on the situation.”

Troubled recent history

Thailand’s recent political turbulence began in September 2006, when the military toppled then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Elections were held in December 2007 and won by People’s Power, a party widely regarded as a proxy for Thaksin.

However, a year later the army pressured a faction of the ruling party to swap sides and form a government under opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva. That spurred riots in April 2009 and violent clashes in May 2010. A subsequent election in July 2011 was won by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck.

But she also ended up being ousted, three years later, after weeks of protests over an attempt to pass a controversial amnesty bill that critics said was designed to benefit her brother.

Today, the wealthy siblings are barred from politics and are international fugitives dodging prison sentences after each was convicted of separate financial-related crimes committed during their time in office.

It is unclear if political candidates – allegedly backed by Thaksin – will be able to win enough of the 500 seats in the lower house of parliament in the election due to be held on February 24, or if they plan to punish the junta’s generals with possible dismissal or worse, analysts said.

“I think the pro-democracy parties, all together, would win more than 300 [House] seats out of 500,” Thaksin told Japan’s Kyodo News in Hong Kong on October 18.

Those parties include the Pheua Thai (For Thais), Pheua Chart (For the Nation) and Pheua Tham (For Buddhist Law).

Prayuth may only need 125 seats in lower house

Many analysts predict Prime Minister Prayuth will extend his rule after the polls, either as a winning candidate or appointed by parliament.

To be appointed as an unelected prime minister, Prayuth, now a retired general, would need support from half of the two houses of parliament – 375 lawmakers.

Prayuth orchestrated a recently enacted constitution with a 250-seat Senate to be appointed by his junta. That makes it possible for him to come back as prime minister installed by the Senate plus 125 of the 500 MPs who will be elected in the lower house.

If a new civilian government does win, the army chief’s warning may inhibit their ability to maneuver.

“I believe General Prayuth … had to make a sacrifice,” when he staged the 2014 coup and restored order, General Apirat said. “He is my role model.”

Some pro-democracy candidates vow to amend the constitution, strip the military of their political power and shred the junta’s edicts against free speech and other basic rights.

“Coups d’etat are against the law,” said Watana Muangsook, a former Thaksin minister and Pheua Thai party member after General Apirat made his veiled threat.

“The newly appointed army chief has already laid the foundations for a siege of the country’s future democracy,” the Bangkok Post responded in an editorial last Saturday. “His remark, in fact, makes the country increasingly vulnerable to another coup because it sets a condition for it.

“Anyone who wants to overthrow an elected government can just organize a rally and stir up mayhem, using it as a pretext for military intervention,” it said.