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Coup Threat If "Riots" Erupt After Election

Coup Threat If "Riots" Erupt After Election

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The army's new commander-in-chief in a veiled threat warned he may unleash a coup if people "create riots" against the results of next February's promised elections.

The polls are expected to won by the current putsch-installed military regime's allies but a surprise victory could be achieved by their civilian enemies.

Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong's remarks coincided with the first visit to Thailand by Admiral Phil Davidson, Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM).

The U.S. commander's October 16-17 meetings included 2014 coup leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, his powerful Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, and newly appointed Supreme Commander Gen. Ponpipaat Benyasri.

"The U.S. remains committed, as a long-time friend and ally, to working with Thailand in advancing regional security and prosperity," Adm. Davidson said.

Asked during a news conference if the highly politicized U.S.-trained army which was placed under Gen. Apirat's command on October 1 would seize power if the junta's civilian opponents achieved an unexpected victory in February, Gen. Apirat replied:

"If politics does not create riots, nothing will happen. There have been more than 10 military coups in the past, but previous ones were the result of political unrest."

The military's most recent 2014 coup came after pro-military protesters opposed an elected civilian government, blocked people from voting for a fresh administration, and called on the army to restore order in Bangkok's bloodied streets.

Gen. Apirat reportedly led a major military unit, the 1st Division of the King's Guard, during the 2014 coup.

He is the son of a 1991 coup leader, then-Supreme Commander Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong, who was educated in the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff at Fort Leavenworth and who easily ousted a corrupt civilian government.

Gen. Apirat is also secretary-general of the junta's ruling body known as the National Council for Peace and Order, and he commands its Peacekeeping Force which controls the army, navy, air force and police.

Gen. Apirat's warning on October 17 spread fear among Thai politicians, analysts and media who predicted if pro-democracy groups win against the odds and form a government after February's elections, their fragile administration could quickly be toppled, clamping this U.S. ally back under suffocating military control.

"There have been no signs of potentially serious conflicts or unrest," the less powerful Gen. Pornpipat said, hoping to dampen anxiety about Thailand's stability amid efforts to attract international investment, tourists and respect.

"Let us not jump the gun about incidents that have not happened, or are unlikely to occur, and make people worried," Gen. Pornpipat said.

"What the army chief means is that if the country stays peaceful, there is nothing to worry about. So everything depends on the situation," echoed Defense Minister Prawit on October 18.

The military's earlier 2006 coup toppled then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra before the 2014 putsch ended the administration of Mr. Thaksin's sister, former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Today, the wealthy siblings are barred from politics and are international fugitives dodging prison sentences after each was convicted of separate financial-related crimes committed during their time in office.

It is unclear if Mr. Thaksin's political candidates will be able to win enough seats in the tentatively scheduled February election for parliament's 500 House of Representatives or if they plan to punish the junta's generals with possible dismissal or worse, analysts said.

"I think the pro-democracy parties, all together, would win more than 300 [House] seats out of 500," Mr. Thaksin told Japan's Kyodo News in Hong Kong on October 18.

Those parties include the Pheu Thai ("For Thais"), Pheu Chart ("For the Nation"), and Pheu Tham ("For Buddhist Law").

Many analysts predict Prime Minister Prayuth will extend his rule after the polls either as a winning candidate or appointed by parliament.

To be appointed as an unelected prime minister, Mr. Prayuth would need support from 375 parliament members out of a total 750.

Mr. Prayuth already orchestrated a recently enacted constitution allowing those 750 to include a 250-seat Senate to be appointed by his junta.

That makes it possible for him to come back as prime minister installed by that 250 block vote plus 125 among the 500 elected House members.

If a new civilian government does win, the army chief's warning may inhibit their ability to maneuver.

Some pro-democracy candidates vow to amend the constitution, strip the military's political power, and shred the junta's edicts against free speech and other basic rights.

"Coups d'etat are against the law," said Mr. Thaksin's allied Pheu Thai party member Watana Muangsook after Gen. Apirat made his veiled threat.

"I believe Gen. Prayuth...had to make a sacrifice," when he staged the 2014 coup and restored order, Gen. Apirat said.

"He is my role model," Gen. Apirat said.

"The newly appointed army chief has already laid the foundations for a siege of the country's future democracy," the Bangkok Post responded in an editorial on October 20.

"His remark, in fact, makes the country increasingly vulnerable to another coup because it sets a condition for it.

"Anyone who wants to overthrow an elected government can just organize a rally and stir up mayhem, using it as a pretext for military intervention," it said.

***

Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978 and winner of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He co-authored three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!' Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60 Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter "Ceremonies and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest book, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo" portrays an American 22-year-old female mental patient who is abducted to Asia by her abusive San Francisco psychiatrist.

His online sites are:

https://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com

https://www.amazon.com/Hello-Big-Honey-Revealing-Interviews/dp/1717006418

https://www.facebook.com/SheilaCarfenders

https://www.amazon.com/Sheila-Carfenders-Doctor-President-Akimbo/dp/1973789353/

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