Many Thais are still perplexed more than a week after Army Chief General Apirat Kongsompong announced a communist conspiracy was plotting to seize power, led by elderly politicians and academics who had supposedly “implanted communist chips” in their brains.
These secretive Thai communists have allied with Hong Kong’s new generation of protesters and could lure Thai youths to unleash an insurrection in Bangkok, the army commander warned.
The general’s 90-minute speech at the Royal Thai Army Headquarters on October 11 was titled “Our Land From a Security Perspective.” The audience of 500 included university students, academics, local leaders and the media.
While speaking, Apirat, who was trained in the United States, appeared on the verge of tears.
He projected photos of the army fighting battles during ancient and modern times, and displayed an ominous warning in Thai and English which stated in all-capital letters:
“UNLESS YOU’RE WILLING TO PICK UP A WEAPON & DEFEND YOUR COUNTRY, I SUGGEST YOU STOP CRITICIZING THOSE WHO DO.”
Apirat blamed Thailand’s dangerously polarized politics on “communist elements who have refused to turn over a new leaf” after a tiny, relatively ineffectual Communist Party surrendered in 1988 and received amnesty.
Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn, then a crown prince, fought on the battlefield against the communist rebels.
“They are very old now, lurking behind the scenes, but are actually the masterminds. They are working with some foreign-educated and far-left academics to plant wrong ideas into the minds of students,” Apirat said.
“The old [communist] members who became politicians and academics still have their implanted communist chips,” he said.
An editorial in the conservative Bangkok Post said: “This is similar to the dangerous propaganda tactic used by the state in the lead-up to the October 6, 1976 massacre of student activists.”
On that day, security forces and supporters killed up to 100 university students, leaving lynched and mutilated corpses in Bangkok’s streets, for allegedly harboring communist ideas.
During the mid-20th century, the US-backed military also battled a scattered, shallow insurgency by Thais suspected of being allied to China’s Communist Party.
“As we’ve seen during the Cold War, people labeled as communists became enemies of the state, marked for elimination by any means,” said opposition Future Forward party Secretary General Piyabutr Saengkanokkul.
“You’re trying to evoke another Cold War in this country when there isn’t one,” said Piyabutr, responding to Apirat’s speech.
Apirat, 59, was also mocked and denounced by others among Thailand’s analysts, media and the public for trying to intimidate and smear critics without evidence.
They said Apirat’s stance threatened Thailand’s fragile evolution toward democracy, based on partial parliamentary elections in March after a 2014 military coup installed a junta for five years.
Prayut Chan-ocha was army chief when he led the putsch, and retained his position as prime minister through the ballot box.
China, meanwhile, supported Apirat’s conspiracy allegations against Thailand’s billionaire opposition politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
He leads Future Forward, the third-biggest party in parliament which is especially popular among young voters.
Thanathorn, 40, is already facing serious charges of “sedition” and other crimes for his anti-military politics. A separate suit regarding his alleged share-holding in a media company while campaigning as a politician could see him stripped of his parliamentary position and barred from politics.
Without mentioning Thanathorn’s name, the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok said, “A Thai politician has contacted the group that wants to separate Hong Kong from China, showing gestures of support. This is wrong and irresponsible.”
Bangkok and Beijing are close diplomatic, economic and military partners, perceived by some analysts as rivaling US influence in this Buddhist-majority country.
Thanathorn appeared cheerfully posing shoulder-to-shoulder with Hong Kong’s protest leader Joshua Wong in a photo posted on October 6 to Wong’s Facebook site.
“Under the hard-line authoritarian suppression, we stand in solidarity,” Wong reportedly said in the photo’s caption.
“Now, there is unrest in Hong Kong,” Apirat said in his speech. “A visit [by Thanathorn] can be viewed as giving encouragement and support.”
Focusing on Thailand’s university students, Apirat said, “Hong Kong protesters are mostly youths. I ask, ‘If one day you feel disappointed and someone brainwashed you to take the streets, would you come out?’”
Apirat projected the color photograph of the two men but self-censored it to display Thanathorn as a gray silhouette next to a clearly visible, smiling Mr. Wong.
Responding to Apirat’s speech, Thanathorn said he was invited to Hong Kong by The Economist, a conservative British magazine, to speak at an Open Future Festival on October 5.
“That was the first and only time I met Joshua Wong. I have never had any involvement with any political group in Hong Kong, and I have no intention to do so in the future,” Thanathorn wrote on his Facebook page.
“A single photograph of me and Joshua Wong was exaggerated out of proportion without any evidence. Some media and people, including a commander in the armed forces, tried to link me with unrest in Hong Kong in order to spread hatred in Thai society.”
During his victorious House of Representatives election campaign earlier this year, Thanathorn promised to slash the military’s budget, end army conscription and rewrite the junta’s 2017 constitution.
Apirat’s speech came after the military spent more than $480 million in recent purchases of US weaponry including eight attack reconnaissance helicopters, 50 Hellfire missiles, 60 Stryker infantry carrier vehicles, 200 Advance Precision Kill Weapon System rockets, plus .50 caliber machine guns, grenade launchers and other arms and ammunition.
That charter empowered the junta to appoint a loyal 250-member Senate to blunt an elected 500-member House of Representatives.
In 1992, Apirat’s father General Sunthorn Kongsompong, who was then supreme commander, and General Suchinda Kraprayoon, then army commander-in-chief, seized power in a military coup.
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.