11 July 2024

As former coup leader Gen Sunthorn Kongsompong’s son, new Army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong can never say what many people think regarding toppling a government by military force. The real issue, therefore, is what he will actually do in the future, not what he ambiguously said the other day.

But even if what he said a few days ago is taken away, the signs are not great, opponents of the military regime insisted. Apirat looks like an aggressive “Queen” in a chess game, having been involved in a military operation against belligerent red-shirted protesters occupying a satellite station a few years ago and barely held his tongue on nationalism and loyalty, the two things critics of the military said were always misguided. He also has served in a significant position in Prayut’s post-coup administrative structure.

He was born on March 23, 1960, being the eldest son of former Supreme Commander Sunthorn and Khunying Orachorn.  His primary education was at St. Gabriel’s College and he later did what the offsprings of most senior military officers do by attending the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School (Class 20) and going on to attend the Chulachomklao royal Military Academy (Class 31), from which he graduated in 1985.

In 1986, he took part in anti-communist operations. A more recent “deployment experience” was as a senior officer, when he served as commander of Task Force 14 which conducted counter-insurgency operations in Yala in 2004.

Apirat served as assistant commander in chief, from October 2017 to September 2018. Earlier, he was commanding general of the 1st Army Area between 2016 and September 2017.

“If politically-induced rioting does not occur, there will be no coup,” he said a few days ago in the contentious statement slammed by critics. Prime Minister Prayut said it made headlines because people were reading too much into what Apirat said.

But activists, protesters and critics — who have been more or less restrained by post-coup measures that are set to be relaxed somewhat ahead of next year’s election– can be forgiven for considering Apirat’s remark a veiled threat.  Provocation and law-breaking have become a big part of political activism, and the lines between “peaceful”, vociferous and badly disruptive demonstrations can be grey ones.  In other words, Apirat’s definition of “rioting” may be different from his critics.

“Being calm against the storm may not be his strongest trait,” someone who thinks he knows Apirat well said recently. “Let’s just say there are more reticent predecessors.”

To be fair to Apirat, there have been Army chiefs who said publicly they would not stage a coup, only to go back on their words later. Prayut was one of them.

But Prayut has come out swiftly to defend Apirat’s “rioting” comment probably because political violence was cited as the key reason for the 2014 coup.  Bombings, shooting and killings were rocking anti-government protests when Prayut rolled out his tanks. At the time, Apirat was heading the First Division, the King’s Guard. That unit was often considered instrumental whenever a coup occurred.

Is Prayut using Apirat to warn off potentially troublesome opponents? After all, anyone who play chess knows there are two types of Queen– a low-lying one waiting to pounce in the last minute, and an aggressive one that is always on the forefront of offensive moves. The latter, in many cases, can scare the rival players more.