Apirat urged to remain neutral

Apirat urged to remain neutral

Politicians fire back amid song furore

Politicians demanded Tuesday that the army chief remain neutral in the lead-up to the March 24 general election after he rebuked them for calling for defence budget cuts and revived an anti-communist song as a sign of his military fervour.

Chaturon Chaisang, a Thai Raksa Chart Party key figure, said that the remarks made Monday by army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong were inappropriate and showed he is not politically neutral.

"State officials should maintain their impartiality and should not speak against parties that propose defence budget cuts," Mr Chaturon said.

On Monday, army chief Gen Apirat voiced fierce opposition to proposals by parties, such as Pheu Thai and Future Forward, to slash the defence budget and abolish mandatory conscription.

The army chief referred to a right-wing, anti-communist Thai song to illustrate his patriotism.

"They should listen to this tune -- Nak Phandin," he said before leaving the Internal Security Operations Command office, where he was attending its 11th anniversary.

Nak Phandin, loosely translated as "Worthless", "Scum of the Earth" or "Burden on the Land", was composed in 1975 to promote ultra-nationalist feelings, supposedly to encourage the fight against the now-defunct Communist Party of Thailand. However, it was most commonly used against democrats and leftists.

Mr Chaturon said the song was repeatedly played during a period of political turbulence in 1976 that culminated in the massacre of students and activists on Oct 6 of that year.

"Reviving this song could reignite political divisions," he said.

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva insisted that parties have the right to present their policies, including those regarding the military.

"If anyone disagrees with our policies, they should discuss them with us rather than use them as a reason for conflict," he said.

The Democrat Party is promising purely voluntary military service and defence budget cuts, though the party will not "present policies that would create unnecessary conflict", Mr Abhisit said.

He also said that the army chief, as a state official, should make it clear that he is politically neutral.

In its statement issued Tuesday, the Open Forum for Democracy Foundation (P-Net), a non-governmental organisation focusing on strengthening democracy and electoral processes, said that its network of election watchdogs is monitoring the work of state officials nationwide.

"Officials must maintain political neutrality and avoid using state resources in a way that benefits any particular political party," the P-Net statement said.

However, P-Net expressed concern that rumours of a coup which spread across social media last week could spoil the election climate. It also said some state officials have acted in a way that favoured certain parties.

P-Net's statement also pointed the finger at soldiers who "failed to act within their scope of authority and expressed their political opinions and traded recriminations against politicians". The remarks by Gen Apirat were a case in point, P-Net said.

"The government and the armed forces must stay neutral politically and must not create obstacles to the electoral processes. Political candidates should be allowed to campaign in line with the law and the people should be granted full access to information, which will help them make decisions in casting their votes," concluded the P-Net statement.

Speaking earlier, Gen Apirat had accused some groups of trying to incite conflict and hatred among Thais, with abusive words being used widely on social media.

He said that the armed forces are a security organisation with tasks stipulated by the constitution.

"Armed forces leaders are professional soldiers and play a major role in protecting and safeguarding the key institutions," Gen Apirat said.

He added that efforts have been made to undermine and control the armed forces for political gain.

Defence Ministry spokesman Kongcheep Tantravanich said that some politicians who are canvassing for votes have resorted to mudslinging. In particular, some politicians are trying to ruin the reputation of the armed forces.

Lt Gen Kongcheep said that the armed forces belong to the people and respect the decisions made in a democratic system. The armed forces are always willing to listen to opinions that are constructive, he said.

Speaking during a visit to Ayutthaya Tuesday, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said that the army chief did not want to get involved in arguments with politicians.

The prime minister also said that politicians should campaign in a constructive manner and avoid trading barbs.

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