Gen. Chalermpol Srisawat speaks at the Royal Thai Armed Forces headquarters in Bangkok on Oct. 5. (Photo: AFP)
The Royal Thai Army’s newly appointed commander-in-chief Gen. Chalermpol Srisawat says the powerful military will refrain from unseating governments and meddling in politics in the future.
Chalermpol made the pledge on Oct. 6 during the first meeting of the new chiefs of the Royal Thai Armed Forces in what was likely an attempt to reassure citizens in a country where the military has staged 18 coups since the overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1932.
The army staged its latest coup in May 2014 when then army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha unseated an elected government and appointed himself prime minister.
Six years on, Prayut remains in charge despite widespread dissatisfaction with his administration, which has been mired in allegations of corruption and incompetence.
Chalermpol’s no-more-coups pledge coincided with the 44th anniversary of a massacre of students by soldiers and right-wing militias at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.
On Oct. 6, 1976, dozens of student protesters were lynched and gunned down in an orgy of violence on the university’s campus in what became a watershed moment in Thais’ struggle for democracy.
Nearly half a century later, true democracy remains an elusive dream in Thailand.
However, in recent months youth-led pro-democracy mass rallies have been gathering momentum with protesters demanding sweeping political reforms, including the amendment of the latest constitution, which was drafted by the military after it seized power in 2014.
Although Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932 after centuries of absolute rule, several protest leaders and political observers have said the country is increasingly taking on the trappings of an absolute monarchy under the rule of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who ascended to the throne after his father’s death in 2016.
“Thailand has been gripped by the largest wave of protest in years, forcing a reckoning between the country’s dual structures of democracy and monarchy,” Peera Songkunnatham, a writer based in Thailand’s rural northeast, wrote in an article published this month in Boston Review.
“Thailand is formally a constitutional monarchy, but in recent years the king has made it clear that he is above the constitution rather than bound by it. The fearful wait-and-see attitude toward the new reign that pervaded Thailand four years ago has been superseded by a decisive impatience: we’re sick of waiting; we’ve seen enough; let’s get it over with now.”
In a breach of an age-old taboo whereby the royals are deemed to be above all reproach, several prominent young protest leaders have been openly criticizing King Vajiralongkorn and calling for limits on the monarchy’s influence in Thailand.
In response, the royalist establishment has retaliated against the protesters by charging them with a variety of crimes including sedition.
The army’s newly appointed chief, Gen. Narongphan Jitkaewtae, has said that he considers protecting the monarchy as one of his priorities.
“Protecting the monarchy with absolute loyalty and supporting the government to resolve national problems and working to advance the country are honorable tasks for us [the generals],” Narongphan stressed at a gathering of army generals on Sept. 23.