In his speech, the Army boss also referred to a number of visits by Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong to Thailand and questioned what were the purposes of these visits and who he had come to meet in Thailand. The army leader told his audience that every crisis in Thailand had in the past been brought about by politics, politicians and those who follow them.

The speech by Army Chief General Apirat Kongsompong on Friday last has drawn criticism from the opposition stung by its virulence and implacable message. Future Forward Secretary-General Piyabutr Saengkanokkul has warned of a generational struggle and the deepening of political divisions. The opposition has been left with a clear message in relation to their campaign to seek alteration or even a complete rewriting of the 2017 Constitution. The speech was also a wider attack on politics and politicians who may be seen to criticise the Thai military.

The army chief General Apirat Kongsompong’s speech on Friday has drawn predictable criticism from opposition figures but it has raised a question mark over the campaign that had begun in September to garner grassroots support to critically alter the Thai constitution to take away the key powers of the military establishment. On Saturday, the secretary-general of Future Forward Piyabutr Saengkanokkul (inset left) warned of a generational struggle while the leader of the party Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit (inset right) seemed particularly interested in disassociating himself with the Hong Kong protest movement and activist Joshua Wong after the army chief linked the two in his controversial address.

The aftermath of Thai army chief General Apirat Kongsompong’s explosive speech last Friday has produced a predictable response from opposition parties and raised the level of uncertainty about the stability Thailand’s political situation.

Prime Minister calls for constructive politics to emerge

The prime minister on Sunday called for political parties to focus on working constructively. He called on politicians from all generations to work together to build a better future for Thailand saying that the Thai public was perceptive and understood the situation: ‘The people can now distinguish. If we work together, the country will progress considerably and sustainably. Both old and new generations of politicians must move together hand in hand, though someone tends to criticise their own country, which amounts to criticising themselves.’

Call by for the government to clarify the status of army leader’s speech last Friday

However, this was not enough for the opposition who have called on the government leadership to take steps to clarify the status of the army leader’s speech. Anusorn Iamsa-ard of Pheu Thai speculated that the speech may have been designed to deflect from what he termed the ‘declining popularity’ of the democratically elected government only months since it was sworn in.

Public losing faith in the government

A Nida poll conducted with a reflective sample from October 9th to 11th showed that nearly 47% of Thai people believe that the current government is not capable of tackling the country’s problems while a range of responses showed that roughly two-thirds of Thai people have a negative impression of the coalition.

Opposition figure seeks an investigating panel

The opposition party spokesman called for a panel of enquiry to be set up to investigate the speech by the army chief and identify if it was a calculated political act. ‘Gen Prayut must set up a panel to look into the matter to assure the public that the government did not use the army as a political tool and that the army was not trying to support the government so much so that it loses its neutrality,’ he told reporters.

Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong linked with Thai politics

Much of the attention after the speech has focused on the controversy generated when the army chief showed a picture of Joshua Wong and an outline of the Future Forward Leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit when both met at a conference in Hong Kong in early October.

Wong a frequent visitor to Thailand – General Apirat

However, the army chief also pointed out during his speech that Mr Wong had been a frequent visitor to Thailand and asked what were the purpose of the visits? He also suggested that Mr Wong may have been conspiring with parties in Thailand. ‘This Joshua Wong character came to Thailand many times,’ said General Apirat. ‘I don’t know how many times. For what reason? Did he come to meet some damned person? Did this meeting offer an occasion to conspire together to do something?’

Thantathorn’s first and last meeting with the activist

In response and clarification of the photo, Mr Thanathorn, the Future Forward leader, this week has said that his photo with Mr Wong at the recent event hosted by The Economist magazine was his first and last meeting with the activist. Mr Thanathorn also suggested that he had no involvement with the Hong Kong protests nor would he have in the future.

Army leader does not expect to be believed by everyone – a spokesman said on Saturday

The response to the speech initially has certainly been tempered and media coverage is tending to play down the significance of the remarks painting the outspoken army chief as a controversial figure. A spokesman for General Apirat on Saturday, Colonel Winthai Suvaree, said that the commander-in-chief was neither coercing nor expecting people to believe or support what he said.

Support for Apirat from a former Redshirt leader and Vice Minister at the Office of the Prime Minister

His remarks later drew support from a former Redshirt leader and now a Vice Minister at the Office of the Prime Minister, Suporn Atthawong, once known as a committed member of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship and nicknamed ‘Isan Rambo’ for his fiery tirades and appearance.

PM’s UN trip sabotaged by orchestrated protests

Mr Suporn pointed to the orchestrated and clearly paid for protests aimed at sabotaging the prime minister’s recent successful trip to New York to raise the country’s profile in the United States and address a UN forum. He castigated the opposition for failing to learn from the past by playing what he termed old-style politics.

He pointed out that the army leader was speaking in his capacity as the Head of Internal Security Operations Command tasked with preserving peace in the country.

Real political battle now in Thailand centres on the constitutional reform campaign

In political terms, it is known that the opposition alliance parties view the altering of the 2017 constitution as their primary political goal at this time. The issue has been kicked back and forth within parliament with many parties including some in the government and even the prime minister, suggesting that there is some merit in looking at reform of the charter. 

Senate has the power to appoint a prime minister for the next five years under the constitution

The problem is that the opposition will not be satisfied with anything that, at a minimum, fails to effectively remove the military’s power now in place for at least the next five years through the military-controlled Senate in appointing a prime minister to lead a government.

Opposition tried to engage the public to demand constitutional change through roadshows

A series of roadshows was organised in September designed to engage the public on the issue. It is clear that the opposition cannot change the constitution as they would wish without widespread public support. This is at the heart of the current situation. 

There were also attempts in September by the opposition to link the constitutional change roadshows to the day to day problems of Thai people such as the poor economy and in the south, with the insurgency. However, a recent poll shows that constitutional change is a lower priority for most voters.

Controversy of Section 1 arose from one of the opposition’s roadshows in Pattani in September 28th

The reference in the army leader’s speech to the Section 1 of the constitution came following a police complaint made in Pattani by officers of the 4th Army days after the September 28th constitution change roadshow attended by Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Pheu Thai’s Sompong Amornwiwat as well as academics and a number of other opposition party leaders. 

An academic from Kasetsart University suggested that change to the definition of the country as an inseparable kingdom could be considered as part of a package of measures to bring the local insurgency to an end.

This is thought to mean something like the devolved government in Northern Ireland or even Spain which is anathema to the Thai military as well as the vast majority of the public and would never be contemplated much less accepted.

Army chief’s speech was even wider-ranging and took aim at critics of the military

However, the speech on Friday went even further. The army leader reprimanded those who criticised the military. ‘If you are not willing to pick up the weapon to defend the sovereignty of the nation, then do not criticise those who do it,’ he said.

The Pheu Thai Party and Future Forward Party have recently been critical of the government’s expenditure on defence which was a recurring theme of the election campaign that also produced several outbursts from General Apirat.

General blames politicians for the ‘disasters’ that have hit the county ‘each time there is no peace’

In the course of the speech, the general also said that the country’s crises were essentially caused by politicians. ‘Think thoroughly, each time a disaster happens in the country, each time there is no peace. It is because of politicians and political parties and whoever goes along with them,’ he declared.

‘Who would you trust to solve security problems? Academics? Teachers?

Although he did not name them specifically, the general also made clear his suspicion of political parties such as Future Forward when it comes to the security of Thailand. ‘Who would you trust to solve security problems? Academics? Teachers? Who conspire with communists with the insane brains. Who go to learn in countries that once pursued colonisation, where they learn unethical things,’ he exclaimed.

Damper on a flowering spirit of democratic engagement that has sprung up recently

The speech by the army leader has put a damper on a growing spirit of opposition political activity that had begun to spring up.

It raises concerns about Thailand’s political stability and whether the opposition accepts this or not, it is a signal from the army leader towards both the campaign to alter the constitution and the Future Forward Party, it’s agenda and platform which achieved remarkable support from younger and more educated Thai voters on March 24th.

Future Forward co-founder warns of a generational conflict when recating to the speech

Responding to Friday’s speech on Saturday, the secretary-general of Future Forward, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul warned that the views which Apirat expressed were divisive and spoke of a clash of generations in the future.

The MP, well known for his work as a leading legal academic, held that any proposed change to Section 1 of the constitution had no impact on the monarchy despite the army leader’s fears and suspicions. 

He also said that the opposition has no plan to change either Section 1 or Section2 in relation to the integrity of the kingdom and the monarchy.

In the course of the government’s policy statement in July, the acting Future Forward leader in the house pointed out that his party was as loyal and committed to the state as any and upheld the monarchy as an institution.

Opposition faces a thorny dilemma

The problem is that the warning shot has been fired. Thailand’s opposition faces a dilemma. Either they move forward in earnest with their campaign to fundamentally and critically alter the constitution which must, in order to deliver the scope of change they require, develop into a grassroots movement among the public which will inevitably end up on the street or they proceed to work the current constitution and pay lip service to reform, tinkering around the edges.

Governing elite will not give up key constitutional provisions and powers easily

Is difficult to see the current governing authorities giving up the 2017 constitution which was the key fruit of General Prayut’s first term in government and the National Council for Peace and Order or junta. To suggest otherwise is simply not honest or wishful thinking.

Campaign ultimately leads to the streets

If they proceed with a constitutional change campaign and bring it to the public, they risk plunging Thailand into another period when ‘there is no peace’ to use the army leader’s words from Friday.

To many, wedded to democratic and human rights principles, there will be no choice but for others, the short term plight of the Thai public may be more important. It is very much the same choice as the protestors in Hong Kong so the army general is more prescient than many give him credit for.

For Thailand’s opposition, it is a thorny dilemma indeed.

Further reading:

Army Chief draws a line on opposition moves to alter the 2017 constitution in a passionate speech

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

Opposition parties lodge defamation and criminal complaints against key army officers on Sunday

Opposition will not put the ฿3.3 trillion 2020 budget bill in danger but plans to scrutinise it

Economy to decide the fate of Prayut’s government as opposition begins charter push