Bangkok - The Thai military, which has stayed clear of politics since 1992, has been drawn into a row involving a maverick media tycoon and Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Supreme Commander General Ruengroj Mahasaranond has come under fire for saying that the armed forces might "take action" if publisher Sondhi Limthongkul continues to involve King Bhumibol Adyulyadej in his criticism of Mr Thaksin. Critics say Gen Ruenroj's remarks smack of the "bad old days" of the Thai military.
Mr Sondhi, who owns the Manager Media Group, has been sued by Mr Thaksin for defamation because he implied that the Premier had performed a ceremony reserved for the King. He further angered Mr Thaksin by alleging before a crowd of thousands last week that the Premier's sister had used a military plane to fly guests to a party.
On Nov 18, Gen Ruengroj told Mr Sondhi not to use the beloved Thai King in his criticisms of the government. "Rivals should not involve the monarch in their quarrels. Soldiers serving under His Majesty, myself included, will not tolerate disrespect that tarnishes the monarchy."
Gen Ruengroj said he disapproved of Sondhi's stirring up divisiveness which undermined national security. "I am concerned about national security and do not intend to get involved in politics."
However, many were not convinced that his remarks had nothing to do with politics. "It's as if we're living in the climate of military rule decades ago. The government is attempting to turn off the press," said Senator Nirun Phitakwatchara, a leader of the 1973 student uprising.
Mr Pibhop Dhongchai, adviser to the Campaign for Popular Democracy, said: ''It is the first time after Black May that a military officer has intimidated a civilian. Mr Sondhi is just a common citizen. There's no need to do that to him."
Black May refers to the bloody public uprising in Bangkok in May 1992 against the military dictatorship.
In an editorial, The Nation said the Thai military "had shown bad signs that old symptoms were returning" even before Gen Ruengroj's outburst.
"Major-General Prin Suwannathat, commander of the 1st Infantry Division of the Royal Guard, had approached Sondhi with a thinly-veiled warning: Stop attacking Thaksin because elements in the military are not happy about it.
"Prin ended up being pilloried by democracy lovers, but failing to heed Prin's lesson, Supreme Commander Gen Ruengroj added to the political heat by trying to sway the sentiment in the government's favour.
"Even if Prin and Ruengroj mean well in reminding political rivals that the monarchy is above and beyond politics, it’s not their duty to intervene." the editorial said.
The Nation also noted that Maj-Gen Prin is a pre-cadet classmate of Mr Thaksin while Gen Ruengroj is close to Chaisit Shinawatra, the former supreme commander and Mr Thaksin's cousin – thus making them hardly "neutral parties".
"If Sondhi has erred, the law will rein him in …. Prin and Ruengroj would best serve the country's interests by keeping themselves in the barracks, or they will put the military's rebuilt reputation over the past decade under great threat," the editorial said.
* Shades of 'bad old days' for military (The Nation, Nov 21)
* Critics slam Gen Ruengroj's remarks (Bangkok Post, Nov 20)
* Military warning: A not so veiled threat for Sondhi (The Nation, Nov 19)