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Jakarta Post

A gentle reminder for Thai army chief about his father's coup

  • Kornelius Purba

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, December 13, 2018   /   09:26 am
A gentle reminder for Thai army chief about his father's coup Thai Prime Minister, General Prayut Chan-O-Cha speaks during a press conference with German Chancellor after a meeting on November 28, 2018 in Berlin. Odd ANDERSEN / AFP (AFP/Odd Andersen)

There is new hope that Thailand will have a general election next February, more than four years after the military staged a coup in May 2014. But now the country has a younger hawkish army general, whose father was also a junta leader 27 years ago. 

Army chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, who was promoted to his new position in October, hinted it was not impossible that he would stage a new coup if he concludes it is the last resort to protect the monarch. Describing the current junta leader and also prime minister, Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha, as his role model, the army chief never tries to pretend to be pro-civilian. His father, late Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong, staged a coup in February 1991.

But Kongsompong would remember well the rise and fall of his father, who toppled the government to protect the King, but later found himself unwanted by the monarch because of his failure to set a good example to the nation. Kongsompong may repeat the same reason — or pretext — to use military force to grab power. This suggests the Thai brass feel they still have considerable support for nondemocratic means and ways of governance.

I always remember an amusing family incident involving a Thai coup leader many years ago. Indonesian state-owned television network TVRI and a national newspaper reported how the general’s first wife caught him dancing with his mistress, not long after his successful coup, at a military reception. I did not remember his name, until a Thai dissident told me about the general recently.

I often joked about the scene with my Thai friends, including with Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, who was just released in April after serving seven years of his 11-year sentence for defaming and insulting the king and the royal family. 

“I do remember the scene. The general’s wife forced the military band to stop playing and the general had to escape with his very young mistress,” I told Prueksakasemsuk when he and another antigovernment activist, Chonticha Jangrew, visited The Jakarta Post last month. He confirmed my memory that the general was the senior Kongsompong, although I failed to find the old photograph on Google. 

Kongsompong toppled then-prime minister Gen. Chatichai Choonhavan on Feb. 23, 1991, but the scandal apparently diminished his strong man image. The regime could only survive for about one year, after then-King Bhumibol Adulyadej openly showed his disapproval of the junta.

Like others of the “first wives club”, the general’s wife was angry for years at his mistress. Kongsompong senior once described his pain as a man torn between two lovers.

The army chief apparently inherited his father’s coup aspirations, but going by the late monarch’s signals with junta leaders, personal integrity would be important to the credibility of the junta leadership.

Gen. Prayuth has ruled Thailand as a dictator since May 2014, after overthrowing the democratically elected Yingluck Shinawatra.

Following repeated promises to hand over power to a democratically elected government, Prayuth’s newest promise is to hold a general election on Feb. 24, 2019. But Kongsompong did not rule out a coup to protect King Vajiralongkorn and the monarchy. 

“Thailand has had more than 10 coups, but it’s no longer like in the past because the recent ones occurred due to politics,” he told journalists, as quoted by international media organizations.

The 58-year-old general has also branded a group of petitioners, who recently urged King Vajiralongkorn to remove the junta, as “mentally insane”. “The majority of those who slander the monarchy are mentally insane and those who are not insane have strange ideas,” Kongsompong said.

Prayuth pledged he would do his best as ASEAN’s new rotary chairman during its leaders’ summit in Singapore last month. “I give you my word,” the prime minister said. 

Hopefully his assurance also applies to his promise to his own nation that he would end his dictatorship as soon as possible. Prayuth’s position as chairman of the 10-member trade bloc has clearly played a role in his determination to return political sovereignty to the people. He staged a coup against a civilian government in May 2014. Now he has strong self-confidence that the people will mandate him to continue to rule Thailand through a democratic general election. 

The junta on Tuesday lifted the ban on political activities ahead of the promised election next Feb. 24.

Hopefully, the Thai people are to again enjoy a full democracy, but the threat of a new coup is not very far, if not very close to them.

Today Gen. Kongsompong has a golden chance to be written into Thai history as a general who was on the frontline to support the return of civilian supremacy. Or will he repeat his father’s history? 

Prayuth has a last chance to prove that he deserves the position as chairman of ASEAN by ensuring a fair and democratic election next February. The Thai people are the holders of supreme power. Prayuth has the right to contest the election and therefore to extend his rule. 

The Thai army chief should resist the temptation to repeat his father’s coup path. Don’t let history repeat itself, general.