October 12, 2019 / 11:49 AM / 5 days ago

Thai opposition accuses army chief of meddling in politics, instigating hatred

BANGKOK (Reuters) - A Thai opposition party accused Thailand’s army chief on Saturday of meddling in politics and instigating hatred, hitting back at his attack on opposition politicians and academics a day earlier.

Thailand's Royal Army Chief General Apirat Kongsompong talks to media during the joint news conference with 40th Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army Gen. James C. McConville at the Indo-Pacific Armies forum (IPACC) in Bangkok, Thailand September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Direct military rule officially ended in Thailand in July, although the new civilian administration is led by the former army chief who overthrew the previous elected government in 2014.

The current army chief, General Apirat Kongsompong, has repeatedly said the military has stepped back from politics, but on Friday he strongly criticised opposition politicians and academics. He accused them of colluding to brainwash and mobilise young people and of having “communist” ideas to overthrow the monarchy.

He did not identify the people but two silhouetted pictures he showed during his emotional speech were easily recognizable as Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, charismatic leader of the Future Forward Party popular among Thai youth.

Responding to the attack, the party’s secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul said the army chief was meddling in politics and painting those with more progressive views as enemies of the state to instigate hatred.

“The speech reinforced conflicts and divide. As we’ve seen during the Cold War, people labelled as communists became enemies of the state, marked for elimination by any means,” Piyabutr said, referring to a university massacre in 1976.

“You’re trying to evoke another Cold War in this country when there isn’t one,” said Piyabutr, a former law academic.

On Oct. 6, 1976, state forces and royalist mobs attacked a group of about 2,000 students inside Thammasat University and killed dozens, accusing them of sympathizing with left-leaning revolutions sweeping through the region at the time.

Thailand’s monarchy is legally above reproach. Future Forward Party has denied accusations that it is anti-monarchy, saying the institution is untouchable.

Piyabutr said Apirat’s rhetoric was an attempt to create a crisis in order to justify the military’s exercising special powers and interfering in politics.

“There needs to always be a crisis for the military to always remain powerful ... That crisis needs to be created and instigated,” said Piyabutr.

He also called for reforms to make the military more in line with democratic values.

“The army does not align itself with democracy, constantly interferes in politics, always stands ready to seize power,” he said.

Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Frances Kerry

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