- - Monday, October 22, 2018

BANGKOK — The Thai army’s new commander in chief has warned that he may unleash a coup if opponents of the government “create riots” against the results of February’s promised elections.

The military regime’s allies are expected to win the elections, but analysts aren’t ruling out a surprise victory by civilian parties that have been blocked from power for four years.

Army Gen. Apirat Kongsompong’s remarks coincided with the first visit to Thailand by Adm. Philip S. Davidson, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. The U.S. commander’s Oct. 16-17 meetings included 2014 coup leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, powerful Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and the newly appointed supreme commander, Gen. Pornpipat Benyasri.

Asked during a news conference whether the U.S.-trained army, which was placed under Gen. Apirat’s command on Oct. 1, would step in if the junta’s civilian opponents achieve an unexpected victory, Gen. Apirat replied that it would depend on the state of public security.

“If politics does not create riots, nothing will happen,” he said. “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 coup was in 2014, 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 was leading a major military unit, the 1st Division of the King’s Guard.

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.

The general’s warning spread fear among Thai politicians, analysts and media, which predicted that a fragile administration formed by victorious pro-democracy groups could be toppled quickly, clamping this U.S. ally back under suffocating military control.

The Bangkok Post warned in an editorial on Saturday that Gen. Apirat “has already laid the foundations for a siege of the country’s future democracy.”

“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,” the editorial argued.

“There have been no signs of potentially serious conflicts or unrest,” said Gen. Pornpipat, who ranks below Gen. Apirat. He was hoping to ease anxiety about Thailand’s stability amid efforts to attract international investment and tourists.

“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,” Mr. Prawit said a day later.

A 2006 military coup toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a civilian business magnate, before the 2014 putsch ended the administration of Mr. Thaksin’s sister, 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 whether Mr. Thaksin’s political candidates will be able to win enough seats in the parliament’s 500-seat House of Representatives or whether they plan to punish the junta’s generals with 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 last week.

To be appointed prime minister, Mr. Prayuth would need support from 375 parliament members out of a total 750. The government recently pushed through a revised constitution allowing those 750 seats to include a 250-seat Senate, whose members are appointed.

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