The Royal Thai Army is fighting a “hybrid war” waged by enemies who are using “fake news” to turn young Thais against the military and the monarchy, says army chief Apirat Kongsompong.
In a rare interview with Reuters on Friday, a week after a half-dozen small bombs hit Bangkok during a high-profile Asean meeting, Gen Apirat said the attacks were aimed at undermining the new civilian government.
Although the country officially ended five years of army rule last month, opposition parties say elections were engineered to keep Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, who led the 2014 coup, in power as prime minister and cement the military’s control.
Gen Apirat said the army was now fighting a struggle that he compared to that against communist insurgents in the 1970s and ‘80s, with the challenge now being propaganda on the internet.
“The threat now is fake news,” he told Reuters in his first sit-down interview since the new government took office in July.
“It’s like cyber warfare. And when it combines with the (bombing) incident that happened last week … it’s like hybrid warfare.
“Now it is not just an open enemy like the old time. … So we have to reorganise and improve our knowledge, and reorganise our units and many things to maintain peace and national security.”
Gen Apirat declined to name those he suspected of being behind either the propaganda or the bomb attacks, but referred to unidentified parties.
“Some political parties, just born a couple of years ago … had the platform of their propaganda directed to (people) when they were 16 and 17,” he said. “They try to educate them with fake news.”
A surprise in the March election was the emergence of the new and stridently anti-junta Future Forward Party which specifically targeted young voters and is now allied with Pheu Thai, which led the government overthrown in the 2014 coup.
No opposition party has advocated violence against the military or government, but police have said last week’s bombings were suspected to be “linked to political issues”.
With the new Prayut government in place, Gen Apirat vowed that the military would stay out of politics and said there would be no coups under his watch.
“As long as I am in this position I will never let the army cross the line,” said Gen Apirat, whose father was also an army chief and staged a coup in 1991. “After the election, the army has to step back.”
He said that while the military played a role in detecting propaganda against the state — and particularly against His Majesty the King — it is up to the government to take action against perpetrators.
“Now the army and the government, we work separately,” he said.