On Thursday, General Apirat Kongsompong put all military units on a heightened state of alert and vowed that he would not let anyone ‘burn the country’ as tensions between the Future Forward Party and the government grow with a number of cases before the Constitutional Court calling for that party to be dissolved and its leadership banned from politics. 

As Thailand enters into 2020, it appears that the war of words between the Future Forward Party and the establishment including the government and the army is about to reach a climax early in the new year. Today’s statement by the army chief that he has ordered military units to a state of heightened alert shows that battle lines have already been drawn.

The Thai Army Chief on Thursday was quoted as saying that all military units are on the alert to mind their weapons and be ready to use them. It comes as protests are due on January 12th and the Future Forward party shows signs of embracing street protest almost on the assumption that the party will be dissolved by the courts. Both Future Forward Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Secretary-General Piyabutr Saengkanokkul attended a flash protest on December 14th which appears to have rallied support for the party in recent opinion polls.

Political tensions in Thailand were already high following a number of legal cases that have been taken up by the Constitutional Court to dissolve the radical Future Forward Party and with rival protests by pro and anti-government factions planned for January 12th. They were driven up a notch further on Thursday when Thai Army Chief, General Apairat Kongsompong, announced that all army units have been put on heightened alert due to dissatisfaction with the military from some quarters due to its alleged involvement in Thai politics and civil matters.

All weapons must be well guarded – General Apirat

Speaking to the Bangkok Post newspaper, the army boss said that he had instructed all army units to be particularly mindful of their weaponry. ‘Officers have to be more careful from now on,’ he warned.

General Apirat said that all weapons must be well guarded and prepared for use due to the current political climate. He said that the army would foil any attempt by evil people to usurp its position and burn the country in the process.

Army boss has consistently emphasised his virulent opposition to progressive politics including those who demean the military and its traditional role

The latest intervention by the army boss comes after a number of forceful and high powered speeches in the last year in which he has continuously emphasised a virulent opposition to progressive politics peddled by academia and those of the political class that he claims to have a ‘communistic’ point of view.

In his most recent speech and indeed all his comments, the army boss has been interpreted as taking direct aim at the Future Forward Party led by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and legal academic Piyabutr Saengkanokkul. Indeed, at a high profile speech in October, the army leader showed a silhouetted picture of Mr Thanathorn and Hong Kong protest leader Joshua Wong.

General Apirat’s comments have never been censured by the Prime Minister, supported by ministers

The latest comments from the most senior army officer must be taken seriously by observers despite the army leader’s often cryptic style of expression.

Indeed, throughout the year, General Apirat’s comments have never been criticised or countermanded by the prime minister despite strong calls from the opposition for him to do so.

In fact, his stance has drawn support for other members of the government and of course conservative activists who represent many people in Thailand.

At one point at the end of June 2019 when tensions were running high over the formation of a new government with uncontrolled internal bickering, General Prayut himself warned of having to resort to worn out ‘old solutions’ to break the political deadlock in Thailand.

He later apologised for his comments.

Poll at the end of December showed public support for Thanathorn and Future Forward had shot up

It should also be borne in mind that the statement from General Apirat is coming after the December 14th flash mob protest called by Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and what appears to be a public shift in support for the radical political party which has never toned down its vociferous opposition to the military and its interventions in Thai politics since it came to the fore after the March 24th elections.

Indeed, one can describe the Future Forward Party as the fly in the ointment of what was a strategic and impressive victory last year for the former junta’s leadership and the new political party, Palang Pracharat.

Future Forward recorded at over 30% in an opinion poll – the most popular political party

Several credible opinion polls with large samples conducted for the Bangkok Post newspaper in the runup to Christmas showed a spike in support for both the Future Forward leader and the Future Forward Party which according to the surveys is now the most popular party in Thailand with over 30% support compared to under 17% support for the governing party in the coalition government.

Decision on the Future Forward Party due from the Constitutional Court on January 21st

A decision by the Constitutional Court is due on January 21st in a case taken up by the court on the basis that the Future Forward Party, by its policy platform and the speeches of key leaders, is seditious, could see the fate of the party decided as it risks being dissolved and its leadership banned from politics for 10 years.

A second case was taken up by the court in mid-December which concerns over ฿192 in loans from Mr Thanathorn to Future Forward, also presents another and perhaps more serious threat to the party.

The first case was brought by arch-conservative activists while the second case was brought by the Election Commission in its legal role as upholder of Thailand’s election laws and constitutional provisions relating to the conduct of elections.

Army boss warns of a ‘mastermind’

In recent weeks, General Apirat has spoken to the media of a ‘mastermind’ who is determined to undermine the current government and political stability and who is using proxy warfare to achieve his aim.

Observers fear January 12th protest could open the stage to further and ongoing protests

Some political observers fear that the January 12th protests being organised by and large by student activists under the slogan ‘Wing Lai Loong’ or ‘Run to Oust Uncle’ could see political tensions inflamed particularly as within 11 km and nearly at the same time, there will be a counter run entitled ‘Run to Cheer Uncle’ staged by pro-government supporters.

It is reported that over 2,500 participants have already registered for the latter event. ‘This event is for the public, for all of us, in the name of the people who love Uncle, love the nation and the monarchy,’ the organisers say.

The opening of street protests even in a toned-down way, starting with Mr Thanathorn’s flash mob event on December 14th and now these new events, are making many observers nervous that the door to political instability in Thailand is again being opened.

Thanathorn and Future Forward’s determination to bring their message to the streets has been noted

What has taken many commentators by surprise is the determined nature of Mr Thanatorn to engage in this direction which initially drew criticism from former and seasoned street protestors as being premature.

However, the recent political opinion polls have shown considerable public support for the young leader and his party.

It appears that the leadership of the Future Forward Party including Mr Thanathorn and the Secretary-General of the party, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, are now openly prepared to take their political struggle to the streets and are working on an assumption that their party will be dissolved.

Secretary-General of Future Forward warns against ‘lawfare’ being waged to thwart democracy

On Wednesday, Mr Piyabutr referred to the current government as a military-backed one or an extension of the military junta that ruled Thailand from 2014 until July this year.

‘Its righteousness has all gone,’ he intoned. He accused the current government and establishment of using what he termed ‘lawfare’ to thwart democracy.

Mr Piyabutr then went on to suggest that 2020 will be the year that Future Forward will fight for real democracy.

Future Forward adopting a more radical and aggressive tone than other opposition parties

The comments and stance of the Future Forward Party leadership are more radical and at odds currently with other parties within the 7 party opposition alliance. What is more worrisome is that it appears to be moving radically towards challenging the status quo through street protests.

This is the trap that many veteran political operators had before the new year, warned Mr Thanathorn not to fall into.

The position maintained by the army leader is equally clear: ‘I’ll never let anyone burn the country,’ General Apirat said on Thursday.

Divided opinion on the potency of the coming protests

Meanwhile, there is divided opinion over the significance of the January 12th protests.

One senior Thai security official has said that both demonstrations do not run the risk of morphing into the widespread street protests that blighted life in Thailand at times over the last decade and a half even if these were accompanied by flash mobs and improvised protests devised by the Future Forward Party such as seen on December 14th last.

Student-led event unlike protests in the last decade

Observers have also noted that the January 12th protest is by and large student-led.

‘We want to show the government the discontent that citizens have with the administration,’ said Tanawat Wongchai, a university student this week in response to Reuters. This aspect could be viewed a number of ways. 

History of Thai student protests is not a happy one

One is that the protests may not have the grass-root support that the former protests had among the masses. However, the other is that the protests may have the potential to spiral out of control and provoke retaliation. The history of student protests in Thailand is not a happy one.

Support for Future Forward and a weaker economy

However, there are other factors to consider. The rallying of public support for the Future Forward Party and its leader according to recent polls is significant. Also the deteriorating economic situation in Thailand.

Ben Kiatkwankul of Maverick Consulting Group, a firm specialising in political tactics and operations, sees the January 12th protests as the precursor to more street activity as 2020 develops. ‘These events could open the floodgates to more gatherings,’ he warns.

Two warning signs are clear

However, we already know two things that are cause for concern.

One is that the Future Forward party appears intent on bringing its political battle to the streets as it fights what it terms ‘lawfare’ by the establishment. The second is that the army under General Apirat has repeatedly warned that it will not accept its traditional role and the status quo being undermined by progressive forces with links to academia.

Further reading:

Public support swings behind Thanathorn and Future Forward as the political party faces dissolution

General’s speech’s leaves Thai opposition deflated and facing a question over constitutional change

Thanathorn to faces protest charges brought by police and is warned against falling into a trap

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

Election Commission goes to court to have Future Forward disbanded for illegal funding over ฿200 in loans

Prime Minister not concerned at plans for a street protest as Thanathorn issues a warning