Future Forward hits back at army chief

Future Forward hits back at army chief

'Stop creating bogeymen in your heads,' says Piyabutr in response to Apirat and other critics

Gen Apirat
Gen Apirat "did not play politics by setting up a party or facing the ballot box. He expressed political views while wearing a uniform", says Future Forward secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul.

The secretary-general of the Future Forward Party has hit back at the army chief after a sensational speech the latter made on Friday, in which he invoked 40-year-old anti-communist rhetoric to characterise modern security threats.

As he ticked off a list of "leftists" and others he believed had ill intentions toward the country, Gen Apirat Kongsompong  implied that a Thai politician had links with Hong Kong protesters. He used the expression “emperor syndrome”, generally referring to spoiled wealthy children, and “a businessman and factory owner” but did not name names. But it was clear to everyone who he was talking about.

Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, whose family makes and exports auto parts, recently posed for a photo with Joshua Wong, a leader of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. The photo drew criticism in Thailand, and the Chinese embassy in Bangkok also said it was inappropriate. Mr Thanathorn explained he did not know Mr Wong before and only met him last weekend at a forum held by The Economist, where he also took pictures with other panellists.

FFP secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul held a briefing on Saturday to correct the “misunderstanding” raised by Gen Apirat’s remarks, which were made at an event billed as a discussion of national security from a military perspective.

“His presentation of the problems was far from a solution — it deepens the rift in the country, comes straight from the divide-and-rule book and spurs a generation clash,” the former Thammasat law lecturer said.

Mr Piyabutr elaborated on the definition of a “nation”, saying that in Thailand, the word came into use only a few hundred years ago. It aimed to create a sense of a shared past and future to promote unity among people.

After years of secularisation of the state, people emerged as the owners of the ruling power. “People are therefore equal to a nation. Without them, there is no nation.”

Security of a nation, he said, equalled the security of its people.

A nation therefore belongs to the people who hold four key values and a government has a duty to ensure security in these four aspects: economy, life, rights and freedoms, and education. “This is the land in the sense of the democratic world,” he said.

Mr Piyabutr then touched on the amendment of the constitution, responding to charges by the army chief that “leftists” and others were trying to subvert the rule of the country. “One only has to read the constitution to see what can or cannot be amended,” said the FFP secretary-general.

“Sections 255 and 256 say an amendment to the first chapter requires a referendum and it must by no means alter the rule of the country from a constitutional monarchy, change the form of the state from a kingdom, or change it from a single state.”

He added that opposition parties had said multiple times they would not touch the first two chapters of the charter.

“What the army chief said shows that he missed the point [in the constitution]. He used an opinion of an academic to discredit the legitimacy of charter amendment efforts by the Opposition,” said Mr Piyabutr.

“It is also an act of imagination because [what he fears] will never happen. There’s no way to do it and we have no right to even think about it because there’s a ceiling to it.”

He said Gen Apirat must not attempt to use his misunderstanding, feelings or beliefs to derail charter amendment efforts, saying the process must be democratised with people allowed to elect a charter drafting council.

The last two constitutions — the country has had 20 — were drafted by people hand-picked by military administrations after coups in 2006 and 2014.

When a coup is staged, there are no holds barred when it comes to how a constitution can be amended, Mr Piyabutr said.

“When a constitution is torn, there’s no framework for how far one can amend the constitution. It’s back to a vacuum. These are the times changes can be made where Parliament cannot act.

“When it comes to these crucial issues, who violates Chapter 1 — people with pens and bare hands, or those with guns?”

Mr Piyabutr said that in foreign countries, no one remembers the names of the chiefs of the armed forces. “Whereas here, everybody knows their names by heart — we refer to them as Big this, Big that all the time.

“What does it tell us? It tells us a modern democratic state doesn’t allow the armed forces to meddle with politics. But we’re doing the opposite.

“The armed forces interfere with politics more continually and subtly for one reason. There must always be crises so the armed forces can continue to have power as the solution provider. A crisis brings them special powers that allow them to interfere with politics.”

'Hybrid warfare' debunked

He also disagreed with Gen Apirat’s view that Thailand is facing “hybrid warfare”, which the army chief describes as a “combination of multiple conventional and unconventional tools of warfare”.

The unconventional warfare he mentioned involves irregular forces, support of local unrest, information and propaganda, diplomacy, cyberattacks and economic warfare. 

“Thailand is viewed from abroad as a ‘hybrid regime’ that has yet to be named. It has eight elements and one of them is elections, which exist only as a tool for power succession. They turn into a cosmetic item so we can show the world we’re back to normal,” Mr Piyabutr said.

He added that 24 million people voted for parties that had made clear before the March 24 election that they did not support the perpetuation of power by the military junta through a proxy political party, with Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha as a non-elected prime minister. Yet their voice amounted to nothing thanks to provisions in the junta-dictated charter that allows appointed senators to vote for the prime minister.

Another element is a claim by soldiers that they have returned to the barracks but are still “at attention” occasionally.

“What Gen Apirat said yesterday is political interference,” said Mr Piyabutr. “Of course, he did not play politics by setting up a party or facing the ballot box. He expressed political views while wearing a uniform.”

In Mr Piyabutr’s view, seizing ruling power by force has been transformed from warfare into “lawfare”, starting from Brazil and spreading to Europe.

“It works like this: Political issues are brought to courts with power to dissolve parties. Courts are vested with power to disband them in the name of the rule of law.

“Then some media will help create a buzz that a party will definitely be dissolved or a politician imprisoned even though there’s no clear evidence. When public sentiment is ripe, the court will deliver the blow.”

The Future Forward Party and its leader are facing numerous legal charges, some of which could lead to Mr Thanathorn’s conviction, a ban from politics or even result in the party — the country’s third-largest — being dissolved.

Three power groups

The 40-year-old politician finished by saying the 13-year-long conflict Thailand was facing is too complicated and difficult to be entrusted to three groups.

First is the armed forces, which are not democratic, have a habit of meddling in politics and stand ready to stage a coup.

Second is the media which he called “Dao Siam 4.0”, referring to outlets that distorted facts in order to provoke dramatic responses. Dao Siam was the newspaper which published photos and news that triggered public outrage leading to the killing and desecration of bodies of students at Thammasat University in 1976 during the cold-war era.

Third is the government that has extended its power because “if it could solve the country’s woes, it would have succeeded five years ago”. 

Mr Piyabutr ended by inviting the army chief and other members of the establishment for talks.

“Don’t see dissidents as enemies,” he said. “Stop creating bogeymen in your heads because when you do, you feel the urge to destroy them. Having different views doesn’t mean we can’t live together.”

He urged the army chief to also accept that the “Future Forward phenomenon” was real and that “enlightened young people” really existed.

Gen Apirat and his supporters tend to hold the belief that whenever young people take a political stand, someone older and decidedly sinister must be manipulating them into doing so.

“If you are fixated on them being brainwashed, you will always view them as bad actors, with masterminds behind them. Please don’t worry too much about Thanathorn, me or our supporters,” he said.

Also on Saturday, army spokesman Col Winthai Suwaree, responding to criticism that his boss used a public office to launch political attacks, said the content of Gen Apirat’s speech involved security, not politics.

“Gen Apirat talked from his working experience. It’s an analysis of the security situation, an area under his responsibility,” the spokesman said.

“He clearly said he did not force everyone to believe him. Some people have fed the public distorted information so he wanted to give facts and the real picture of the situation so viewers can use their own discretion.”

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