BANGKOK - Thailand's powerful army chief on Wednesday told cadets that the "hatred of the nation" plaguing the country was a bigger threat than the coronavirus, as a nascent pro-democracy movement grows bolder.
The kingdom has seen near-daily protests for more than two weeks by mostly young Thais, fuelled by their anger at a pro-military royalist government headed by former army chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha.
The most overt show of discontent came Monday night, when young students dressed in Harry Potter robes cheered on a lawyer as he led a discussion on the monarchy's role in Thailand.
During a visit to a military academy on Wednesday, army chief Apirat Kongsompong -- an arch-royalist who has slammed pro-democracy figures in the past -- spoke obliquely about the "disease" of criticising one's country.
"COVID-19 can be cured... but the disease that cannot be cured is the hatred of the nation," the general said.
"We cannot cure people who hate their nation."
Thailand's politics has long been defined by a cycle of violent protests and military coups, in apparent zealous protection of the monarchy.
The super-rich King Maha Vajiralongkorn sits at the apex of Thai power, and is protected from open criticism by harsh royal defamation laws.
Premier Prayut, who led the last coup in 2014, is seen as a product of the military's legacy in politics, and much of his cabinet is stacked with generals and royalist establishment elite.
His administration has faced criticism for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has slammed the Thai economy and left millions jobless.
Social-media savvy protesters have called for his government's ouster and amendments to a 2017 military-scripted constitution, which critics say unfairly stacks the power in favour of the military-aligned ruling party.
Prayut appeared to strike a conciliatory tone Tuesday, saying that a committee has been set up to discuss constitutional amendments and floated "public forums with the people, including the young" to discuss grievances.