By The Nation
Army commander-in-chief General Apirat Kongsompong has an attitude problem. Almost from the moment he was promoted to the post, Apirat let his inner bully take charge. At a time when society was well weary of
military rule, he told reporters he would not rule out another coup, should the situation call for it. With an election on the horizon, his remark was a demonstration of how little faith he has in Thailand’s ability to become a full-fledged democracy.
And he didn’t stop there. Apirat, whose fiery nickname is “Big Daeng”, dismissed anyone charged under the lese majeste law as mentally ill. When campaigners in some political parties began suggesting the military budget was too vast, he had Army radio stations start playing a 1970s-vintage patriotic song called “Nak Pandin”, written to denounce Thai supporters of the communist ideology as a “Burden to the Motherland”. More generically, the song’s title refers to someone who is useless. Apirat’s
message to those seeking democratic election to office was that
denigrating the Army was an insult to the country.
More recently he locked horns with retired Police General Seripisut Temeyavej, leader of the Seri Ruam Thai Party, who publicly wondered what wars Apirat had fought in to deserve the many medals he wears. Regardless of their provenance, the medals Apirat sports on his regular, daily, battle-dress uniform are
normally reserved for Class A dress uniforms.
Seripisut made his remark after Apirat accused him of insulting another military officer, Lt-Colonel Pakit Phonfak, who was tracking the candidate on the campaign trail in Prachin Buri. Video of Seripisut
scolding Pakit in strong language went viral. While most people would question Seripitsut’s volatility and choice of words, there was nothing inaccurate in what he said that day. We can only wonder what legal grounds Apirat might cite if he sues the Seri Ruam Thai Party.
As a politician and a civilian, Seripisut has the right to criticise the Army. He language was coarse and his intention was to humiliate the officer assigned to follow him, but the
electorate is smart enough to tell the difference between provocative goading and genuine concern. Apirak suffers by comparison, seeming not to understand his mandated duty.
He takes such matters far too
personally and appears to believe everyone’s trying to undermine his beloved institution.
The duty of a professional soldier is to serve the King and the government and otherwise remain non-partisan. How does that reconcile with engaging in a shouting match with politicians? His conduct undermines efforts to re-establish democracy. He led an oath-swearing ceremony that included a chilling message for the anti-coup camp, coming as it did after pro-junta politicians attacked a party espousing republican principles.
The ceremony saw Apirat present Pakit with a certificate of appreciation for remaining calm in the face of Seripisut’s verbal assault. It was ironic, given that calmness is not Apirat’s forte.
The junta staged its coup ostensibly to restore peace and democracy. Coup leader Prayut Chan-ocha altered the electoral ground rules so that he stands a good chance of returning to power at the head of an elected civilian government. Yet here is the Army chief fomenting a climate of fear that does no good for the junta, for Prayut’s outlook at the poll or for the country as a whole. We all need to agree to jettison the loose cannons and give democracy an opportunity to bloom.