Army leader tells Reuters that Thailand is still fighting a similar enemy as it did in the 1970s and 1980s when it defeated communist threats. Today, he says the battle is online against ‘fake news’ targeting the minds and hearts of the young.

An opinion poll published on Sunday shows the confidence of the Thai public has been shaken by the bombing attacks on August 2nd although there is still faith in the government. It comes after the army chief on Friday described a new ‘hybrid’ war being fought by the military against fake news and actions on the ground like the bombs and fires that went off on the day of an international ASEAN summit in Bangkok. He said that he believes the attack was designed to undermine the newly elected Thai government. 

Thailand’s army leader on Friday in an interview with Reuters identified fake news targeted at the young as the key threat to Thailand. General Apirat Kongsompong said that the army had taken a step back as the civilian government came to power. He revealed that the army still monitors online propaganda for content that was injurious to the state. He described fake news and the sort of bomb attack seen on August 2nd as a new form of ‘hybrid’ warfare which the Royal Thai Army must gear up to counter. A Suan Dusit poll published on Sunday showed that the vast majority of Thai people both believed that the bombings on August 2nd were politically motivated and that there would be further attacks. It showed that despite the public being shaken by the attack, confidence in the new Thai government remains high. (Source: Reuters)

An opinion poll conducted up to last Saturday paints a disturbing picture of the state of mind of the Thai public following the bombing and fire attacks that targeted Bangkok on Friday, August 2nd. The survey was conducted by Suan Dusit of Rajabhat University. It was polled up to Saturday last and had a sample of over 1,200 respondents. It showed that a walloping 86% of people believe that the attack was politically motivated.

Poll findings chime with army leader’s comments to Reuters on Friday on ‘hybrid’ warfare

The findings chime with comments made by the Head of the Thai Army in an exclusive interview he gave to the Reuters news service last Friday in which he described a ‘hybrid’ war currently being fought by the defence forces to counter fake news and propaganda which has been particularly targeted at the young. 

Rapid security response, suspects arrested by police

Since the bombs went off on August 2nd there has been a rapid security response and many suspects have been arrested by the police. The first two suspects were Muslim men Lu-ai Saengae and Wildon Maha who have been linked to the insurgency in the south. The Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan who is responsible for the intelligence services have said that they are not ruling any possibility out as the Royal Thai Police make progress with their investigation being led by a specially appointed police panel.

Attack damaged the country’s image according to three out of four Thai people

However, it appears that the Thai public just like the prime minister on Friday, August 2nd believe that the country’s image was damaged by the attack which took place at the height of ASEAN Summit of Foreign Ministers attended by some of the world’s most influential  foreign ministers from Russia and China as well US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 

The Suan Dusit poll showed that over three-quarters of respondents or 76% felt that the country’s image had suffered because of the low powered explosions and incendiary devices that went before them at a variety of shops in the central Ratchathewi area of Bangkok. The public tends to believe also that this was the motive of the bombings.

A vast majority of Thai people believe that there will be more attacks like those of August 2nd

Significantly, nearly 84% of Thai people believe that there may be future attacks. This may help to explain the unduly negative sentiment which the attack appears to have caused bearing in mind that no one was killed unlike the deadly Erawan Shrine bomb in August 2015 in which 25 people were killed and hundreds injured. Just over 47% of people are also linking the bombs to a fall-off in tourism and the problems that have beset Thailand this year with the economy. 

Nearly 35% say they are living in fear but there is still confidence in the government

A significant 34.57% of people described themselves as living in fear while a lower number, under 25%, agreed that the stability on the government has been shaken. Look at the other way, this suggests that there is still some confidence in the administration.

Army chief believes the bombs were calculated to damage the new government

On Friday, speaking to Reuters, General Apirat Kongsompong told reporters that he also believed the bombings in Bangkok on August 2nd were intended to damage confidence in the new Thai government during the high profile ASEAN summit in Bangkok.

The threat now is fake news

He warmed to one of his favourite themes and that is the fight against communism that Thailand waged successfully in the 1970s and 1980s. The Army leader now sees those same forces appearing again except this time they are on the internet spreading a similar message adapted to younger contemporary audiences. ‘The threat now is fake news,’ he told the news agency. ‘It’s like cyber warfare. And when it combines with the incident that happened last week … it’s like hybrid warfare.’

General Apirat: young people are being influenced by online propaganda directed at them

The army general was somewhat nebulous in his explanation for who might be perpetrating or behind the fake news campaign but did reference some new political parties ‘born a couple of years ago’ and warned that the propaganda has influenced many young people when they were 16 and 17 years of age. ‘They try to educate them with fake news,’ he explained.

A fierce defender of the army and its critical role

The army chief has recently promised to moderate his comments on politics since the new civilian government came into power and focus on military matters such as army training. During the election campaign and even afterwards, he had been forceful in defending the role of the Thai army and fighting any moves to cut its budget as the opposition repeatedly raised the military as a political issue.

Opposition has since called military spending cuts

On the other side of the political divide, the Pheu Thai Party has recently called for military spending cuts as the government hones its spending plans. At the same time, the new Future Forward Party lead by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Thammasat University legal academic Piyabutr Saengkanokkul has emerged as a new power in politics obtaining 81 seats in the lower house in the March election.

New Future Forward party is very opposed to the military’s involvement in politics

Future Forward is very much opposed to the involvement of the military in political affairs and has vowed to prosecute those responsible for the 2014 coup. It also, like the Pheu Thai Party, is calling for a radical reduction in military expenditure.

New party however underlined its support of the monarchy in the recent policy debate in parliament

During the stormy and contentious policy debate at the end of July in the Thai parliament, the Secretary-General of Future Forward Piyabutr Saengkanokkul and its leader in the house, however, defended his party’s commitment to the monarchy and criticised those who questioned its loyalty to the country

Army chief says no coup under his watch

General Apirat, however, in his Reuters interview vowed that there would be no coup by the army while he was chief. His father also held the same distinguished position and led a coup in 1991. The senior officer’s vow on Friday was however firm: ‘As long as I am in this position I will never let the army cross the line.’ 

Army’s role in monitoring online propaganda and illegal content that may harm the state

Thailand’s army leader highlighted the military’s continued role in fighting propaganda threats to the Thai state including the monarchy and the King. He explained that as the country had now reverted back to civilian rule, the army’s role in this area, for now, is to monitor such propaganda and alert the government to pernicious or illegal content that is hostile to the Thai state.

Passionate speech from the army leader in April this year warning about academia importing western values into Thailand

In April this year, General Apirat in a passionate speech at a press conference, hit out at academia and the transfer of western values into Thai society. He outlined the army’s role in protecting the institution of the Thai state at the centre of which is the constitutional monarchy. The speech was widely interpreted as an attack on leftwing or progressive type policies such as the platform that the Future Forward party put forward in this year’s election to woo a more urban and educated vote.

‘This is Siam, Land of Smiles, which has its own unique style of democracy,’ the army chief said at the time.

Further reading:

Maybe time for westerners to listen carefully to Thailand’s army leader and conservative Thai voices

Rapid progress being made on Bangkok bomb probe with 9 suspects already being held by police

Fake news becomes an issue in the Thai election as polling day nears with old battle lines emerging