Apirat out of touch with modern reality

Apirat out of touch with modern reality

Army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong speaks at a lecture at the Kittikachorn auditorium of the Royal Thai Army headquarters on Friday. CHANAT KATANYU
Army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong speaks at a lecture at the Kittikachorn auditorium of the Royal Thai Army headquarters on Friday. CHANAT KATANYU

Friday's lecture by army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong has left many people stunned.

It's not just because his speech on right-wing extremism branded some academics and politicians as "the left" and people with implanted "communist chips".

But it is also because his emotional 1.5-hour lecture, which reflected his views on politics and young people, has raised widespread concern that it will deepen and prolong the ongoing political polarisation which has already been fuelled by the army and its interventions in politics.

Held at Royal Thai Army headquarters, the event was attended by about 500 people including students, lecturers, local leaders, celebrities and journalists. Gen Apirat said there is an urgent need to protect the high institution and national security. But in detail, his points go beyond that.

He accused "communist" politicians and "extreme left" academics of orchestrating a conspiracy and driving information warfare. They used social media to brainwash young people while spreading propaganda and fake news, he said. He claimed these tactics are similar to those which he said have stirred the ongoing protests in Hong Kong which have been led by young people.

Despite neither providing evidence nor identifying those whom he accused, some people actually bought into his claims and threw their support behind him. But his speech has brought about strong rebukes too, particularly from young people who have stormed social media platforms with their disapproval and ridicule of his messages.

The young netizens' use of social media to make their political voices heard could have reminded many of the night before the March 24 election when the hashtag toe laew luaek eang dai, literally translated as "We're grown-ups now and can choose for ourselves", trended at the top of the Thai-language version of Twitter.

During the build-up to the election, many "adults" made a point about the possibility that young people would be influenced or misled by propaganda or certain political parties. That resulted in the popularity of the social media hashtag among young voters who wanted to make it known that they had their own thoughts and could form their own judgement.

Following his "lecture", what has raised my eyebrows the most and was sure to have sent a chill down the spines of my young friends is the way Gen Apirat stirred a sense of anti-communist hysteria from the Cold War era during a time when most countries have embraced liberalisation.

Even in the world's largest communist-ruled country, China, state-led capitalism and free-market economics have been adopted by the government, even though the Communist Party there is devoted in theory to Marxism, Leninism and Maoist thinking -- the anti-capitalism ideologies that have influenced communism.

The origin of communism stems from a desire to create a utopian classless society with common ownership of the means of production -- a counterattack against the 19th- century exploitation of the labour by the greedy capitalist class.

But the thinkers who influenced communist ideology, including Karl Marx, did not leave a blueprint for building that utopia. It was some world leaders who interpreted communism and put it in practice. Many ended up with failure as experienced in Maoist China and Stalin's Soviet Union. They failed to distribute wealth, and instead propelled abuses of power, corruption and the oppression of freedom.

For many people, communism can be evil if it is adopted wrongly or pursued by bad leaders. But it is even more evil when a country's leaders exploit the fear of communism to legitimise their own actions. This was obvious in Thailand during the lead-up to the Oct 6, 1976, massacre of student protesters at Thammasat University.

Before that day, state propaganda had accused them of being "communists", giving a pretext for far-right paramilitaries and state security forces to attack and kill them. There has been no precise death toll from that day, but it is likely that over a hundred lost their lives.

The student protest was made against the return of a former military dictator and anti-communist, Thanom Kittikachorn, to Thailand, following a three-year self-imposed exile in the United States and Singapore as a result of a previous public demonstration.

Similar incidents have also happened in other parts of the world. One of those was in South Korea's Jeju Island where thousands of people taking part in the 1940s popular uprisings were jailed or accused of being communists. The evidence showed they were massacred in prisons across the country.

Historically, a fear of communism has been associated with extreme violence committed by both states and citizens. It has been used to inflame citizens' political polarisation and incite hatred. Such sentiments should never be exploited again.

Gen Apirat's anti-communist sentiment seemed to have its own reason. He told the audience on Friday that his late father Gen Sunthorn Kongsompong, who numbered among the 1991 coup makers, was "shot by communists" when he was on a helicopter flying over Ratchaburi in 1972. His father's left foot was injured. But he survived.

That incident may well have shaped Gen Apirat's patriotism and anti-communist sentiment, but it should not be a reason for him to accuse some politicians and academics of having communist thoughts. In fact, many of them value democracy, human rights and equality -- some of which may overlap with the original idea of a communist utopia. But that doesn't mean they are devoted to communism.

The responses on social media by many young people show they have not bought into this anti-communist rhetoric. So it seems out of date for him to revive anti-communist hysteria in the context of today's political dialogues which should rather be geared towards the future. Now, it is time for dialogue to bring about democratic solutions and aim for a fair and equal society. We should have moved on from the polarisation of the past.

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

Paritta Wangkiat


Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

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