SINGAPORE: Thailand’s election, set on Sunday (Mar 24) is fast approaching. Far from being decisive, it will likely signal the start of a new phase of uncertainty in Thai politics.
While most of the attention today is on General Prayut Chan-o-cha, the incumbent prime minister, leader of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), and the person generally viewed as most likely to lead the country after the votes are counted, General Apirat Kongsompong, Thailand’s new arch-royalist Army chief, casts a low shadow over the election.
Having succeeded General Chalermchai Sitthisart in October 2018, General Apirat, nicknamed “Big Dang”, did not take long to make his presence felt.
General Apirat is the son of General Sunthorn Kongsompong, the former army chief who launched a coup d'état in 1991. He is also a member of the King’s Guard regiment, described in the media as “at the very heart of the royalist military establishment".
In 2006, General Apirat, then a battalion commander, put his support solidly behind General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the former Army chief, when General Sonthi launched a coup d'etat ousting then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Later, in 2010, during the UDD (“Red Shirts”) demonstrations in Thailand, he led a raid on the Thaicom satellite station in Nonthaburi province to reclaim it from UDD protestors.
General Apirat is known to be particularly close to the new King and, in an interview soon after his appointment to the Army chief position, General Apirat declared that he would not hesitate to launch another coup d'etat if political turmoil resumed.
He had to publicly dismiss a rumour that he was planning to stage a coup later in February 2019.
IN THE MEDIA SPOTLIGHT
General Apirat has continued to receive sporadic media attention throughout the build up to the election.
Last month, when questioned about the Pheu Thai Party’s campaign promise to slash military spending, he responded by saying that “they should listen to this song – Nak Pan Din”.
Nak Pan Din, loosely translated to “burden of the land”, is an ultra-nationalist rallying call from 1975 written to support the Thai soldiers fighting communist insurgents during the Red Scare.
However, the song was most infamously sung by far-right paramilitaries and vigilantes on Oct 6, 1976 when they attacked and massacred Thammasat University students protesting the return from exile of General Thanom Kittikachorn.
On Mar 5, Police General Seripisut Temiyavet, the leader of the anti-military Seri Ruam Party, was filmed confronting a soldier who was apparently tailing him as he campaigned in Prachinburi province.
General Apirat subsequently filed a defamation suit against Seripisut and ordered 800 senior military officials to attend a highly-publicised oath swearing ceremony that vowed to only back a future government loyal to the royal family.
Despite Thailand’s contentious history with its military, local observers have commented that Apirat has outdone “all of his predecessors in recent years in open expressions of hostility and virulence".
THE OUTLOOK FOR THAILAND POST-ELECTIONS
Following the upcoming election, stability in Thailand will depend on the political skill of Prayut who is expected to stay in power through various mechanisms already in place.
However, Prayut does not have a reputation of being a naturally gifted politician or a born negotiator and his difficult task will be amplified by the inclusion of a vocal opposition coalition in parliament for the first time in five years.
READ: The return of Prayut as prime minister almost certain when Thais head to polls in March, a commentary
Thailand is also seeing a growing anti-military sentiment particularly among students and young voters. Led by the Future Forward Party and the Pheu Thai Party, this group is pushing a strong anti-military and anti-establishment rhetoric that is sure to influence Thailand’s immediate political future.
It is certainly going to stimulate General Apirat. Given General Apirat’s strong intimidating personality, as seen when he pressed charges against Seripisut, it seems unlikely he will tolerate disruption to the social order, or social democratic reforms that Prayut might be forced to negotiate.
At this critically sensitive time in Thailand’s history, Apirat’s ascension has ramped up distrust between the military and civilians. If Prayut fails to calm the currents, Apirat will be waiting on the sidelines.
Richard Dailly is managing director of business intelligence and investigations at Kroll, a division of Duff and Phelps in Singapore. Ned Jirapat Lee is associate at the same company.