As a primarily nationalist-royalist movement, Thailand’s conservative civil society has sought to preserve the traditional political order. This aim reflects mainstream Thai identity premised on the belief that upholding monarchical rule and Buddhism ensures national survival. When social change, particularly democratization, has challenged this identity, conservative movements have coalesced to counter the perceived threats. As the past decade of protracted political conflict has eroded the traditional political order, nationalist-royalist movements have aligned with other civil society organizations that are disillusioned with electoral democracy. This development has contributed to Thailand’s recent democratic breakdown.
Civic Networks Against Democracy
Although Thailand’s nationalist-royalist social movements are not a novel phenomenon, their leadership of a wider civic network against democracy is relatively new. Their philosophies are centered on the twin ideologies of nationalism and royalism, which propel them to defend three pillars: Thai national identity, the monarchy, and Theravada Buddhism. These movements first appeared in Thailand in response to the 1973 mass demonstrations that helped bring down the military government. As the surge of communist influence in Southeast Asia threatened traditional elites, citizens across the country mobilized to participate in militia groups founded by elements within the army and the police. These groups included Krathing Daeng (Red Gaurs), Nawaphon (Ninth Power), and Luk Sua Chaoban (Village Scouts). They took part in the brutal crackdown against the 1976 student uprising and the nationwide communist insurgency.1 Afterward, Thailand entered a long period of military dictatorship and authoritarianism.
With the 1992 democratic transition and the 1997 “people’s constitution,” the media tycoon-turned-politician Thaksin Shinawatra and his political party, Thai Rak Thai, took center stage. The party’s reformist policies received overwhelming popular support, particularly in the country’s impoverished north and northeast.2 Thaksin was a divisive figure, and in many senses was a “reluctant” populist.3 For his rural constituents, he offered economic equality underpinned by electoral representation. Bangkok’s middle class, by contrast, generally regarded him as a corrupt politician. Many civil society organizations criticized his neoliberal economic policies and record of human rights abuses. Conservative elites saw him as a rival to King Bhumibol’s charisma. Civic coalitions formed against Thaksin. Their mass protests paved the way for military coups in 2006 and 2014.
These conservative civic coalitions against democracy have taken several forms and have evolved over time. The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) was active from 2005 to 2008. Also known as yellow shirts, the eclectic PAD activists and sympathizers included traditional elites, royalist-nationalist activists, disgruntled business groups, Buddhist networks, grassroots nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and student movements. Their common goal was to get rid of Thaksin. The PAD relied on nonviolent direct actions, but also carried out campaigns of vandalism designed to paralyze Thaksin-backed governments. Its tactics included park camping; televised speeches; rallies; blockades of roads, state buildings, and airports;4 boycott campaigns; and various cultural activities to propagate anti-Thaksin messages.5 PAD protest campaigns focused on demeaning Thaksin as a corrupt, immoral, and disloyal politician; casting representative democracy as an inefficient system empowering “bad” politicians; and stereotyping rural constituents as poor, uneducated, and unready for democracy. It sought royal endorsement of military intervention to “cleanse” Thai politics.6
After Thaksin’s 2011 electoral victory, the PAD reorganized as the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), and launched nationwide antigovernment campaigns in 2013 and 2014. The movement was determined to overhaul the entire democratic system under the slogan “Reform Before Election.” Spearheaded by a former opposition politician, the PDRC received support from diverse segments of civil society, including student groups, academia, unions, certain NGOs, individual monks, entertainment industries, and religious organizations.7 The PDRC claimed to represent the “great mass of people” (muan maha prachachon) yet, paradoxically, its central proposal for political reform was to replace elected representatives with a handful of unelected but ostensibly moral leaders.8 Many PDRC supporters, mainly from the Bangkok middle class, mistrusted the rural population’s electoral choices.9 Moreover, the advent of the red shirts—a mostly rural and working-class political movement formed after the 2006 military coup in opposition to the traditional elites of the PAD—and their participation in the 2010 urban riots made conservatives see democracy as a danger.10
The PDRC’s armed guards and right-wing activists frequently intimidated ordinary citizens and journalists, and engaged in head-on clashes with the police and red-shirt militants.11 The PDRC’s defining moment as a civic network against democracy was an anti-election campaign launched after the government announced snap elections in 2014. PDRC activists blocked registration venues and polling stations, and attacked voters. Partly because of these tactics, electoral turnout was historically low.12 The Constitutional Court, with its entrenched support for traditional elites, subsequently voided the results of the election, and the political impasse became the pretext for the army’s seizure of power in May 2014. The military junta then picked up the torch of royalist conservatism, institutionalizing citizens’ vigilante activism and promulgating ultranationalist rhetoric.
Conservative Segments of Thailand’s Civil Society
Thailand’s conservative civil society comprises three strands: nationalist-royalist social movements, Buddhist groups, and some development NGOs. Activism by the first group is a default response to threats posed to the traditional political order by electoral politics. In contrast, many NGOs joined forces with nationalist-royalist movements and traditional elites because of their resentment toward populist encroachments into rural development. For their part, Buddhist conservative groups share select political positions with nationalist-royalist movements and the NGOs.
Nationalist-royalist movements seek to defend conservative national identity from what they see as existential threats—whether Thaksin, the red shirts, or social change in general. The key difference from past right-wing groups is the way today’s conservative activists use online trolling and cyberbullying to expose and punish anyone who criticizes the royal family. This category includes several important conservative civic groups:
- Social Sanction (SS) is one of the earliest civic groups that monitored lèse-majesté (offending the monarchy) postings on social media from 2010.13 The group shared personal profiles of lèse-majesté transgressors on the SS Facebook page for public bullying. Defamatory comments often painted transgressors as un-Thai, ungrateful, and evil.14 A co-founder of SS believed that Thailand “was sinking into an abyss as the result of corrupt politicians and they had no faith in police or any established social institution except the monarchy.”15 At its peak, the SS Facebook page had more than 30,000 likes.16
- Rubbish Collection Organization (RCO) was founded during the 2013–2014 PDRC demonstration and is headed by the former army major, medical doctor, and ultraroyalist Rienthong Nanna. The RCO combines established forms of mob activism with professional military-style organization. It aims to rid Thailand of “social rubbish” and to “eradicate lèse-majesté offenders completely.”17 The RCO would expose breaches of lèse majesté, and then report them to the police. If no legal action was undertaken, it would rely on systematic mobbing by disclosing an offender’s private address and mobilizing royalists to taunt the offender at her or his private residence. In one case, an offender’s parents were pressured to file a case of lèse-majesté against their own daughter.18 In addition to cyberbullying, the RCO publicizes state-organized mass events on its Facebook page, basing its rhetoric on civic volunteerism.19
- The Cyber Scouts program is a government-initiated civic network, reminiscent of the anticommunist, right-wing paramilitary Village Scouts of the 1970s. Founded in 2010 and currently operating under the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society, the program has offered training workshops for high school and university students across Thailand. Its objectives are twofold: indoctrinating the younger generation with ultraroyalist values and creating a youth-based nationwide network of online surveillance of lèse-majesté violations.20 The Cyber Scouts’ work includes incognito methods such as befriending suspects on Facebook and starting conversations about sensitive issues. They also report alleged violations of the lèse-majesté law.21 The program was shut down in 2011 during the red shirt–led government but was reactivated after the 2014 coup. As of 2016, 112 schools were committed to the program. More than 120,000 students have been recruited as Cyber Scouts, and the number may double in the near future.22
Other civic initiatives to expose online breaches of lèse-majesté law include the Network of Volunteer Citizens to Protect the Monarchy on Facebook and the Anti-Ignorance Association. Their online monitoring and reporting of lèse-majesté cases to the police have led to charges being pressed against red-shirt suspects.23 Since the 2014 coup, the number of royalist Facebook pages has multiplied. They usually share doctored images, which sometimes contain obscene and sexist captions that demonize dissidents. They also misquote activists’ interviews or speeches in order to highlight their political partisanship with red shirts and disloyalty toward the palace.
In addition to these organized groups, ordinary citizens rushed to report allegations of lèse-majesté violations, especially after King Bhumibol’s death in 2016.24 Moreover, mourners took matters into their own hands by attacking those whom they viewed as behaving inappropriately in times of grief.25 In conservative Thai political culture, this hysterical suspicion of antimonarchy offenses was an extreme but understandable reaction to the king’s death, but conservative movements have also deliberately fanned ultraroyalist euphoria.26
Religious Figures and Activist Groups
In addition to royalist vigilante groups, activism by militant Buddhist monks and religious conservatives constitutes a key component of Thailand’s conservative civil society.27 Religious figures and collective groups have engaged in two types of activism: political protests and policy advocacy for a religious-nationalist agenda.
Santi Asoke, a sectarian political movement, actively participated in the 2006 and 2008 anti-Thaksin demonstrations that unseated two red-shirt-backed governments. Santi Asoke originated in a rebellion against state-controlled sangha (monastic communities), and many initially regarded it as a reformist movement. But its trajectory changed when the Santi Asoke leadership fell out with Thaksin over the clash between the group’s nationalist-communitarian position and Thaksin’s policies promoting globalized capitalism. One of the group’s leaders later spearheaded the PAD protests.28 Later, in 2009, Santi Asoke’s factions were involved in nationalist protests during the Thai-Cambodian border dispute.29 Although Santi Asoke’s activism may not be inherently antidemocratic, its resentment of Thaksin led its members to join protest movements contributing to democratic breakdown.
While individual monks incited right-wing movements to use violence against public enemies back in the 1970s, the role that Pra Buddha Isara, the militant monk, took in the PDRC marked a critical shift. With close ties to the organizers of the 2014 coup, the monk held views similar to traditional elites—demonizing electoral politics and dismissing rural constituents.30 Not only did he utilize religious teachings to justify violence against the PDRC’s political opponents, Budhha Isara headed a PDRC militant wing and participated in armed clashes with red-shirt activists.31
The Committee to Promote Buddhism as the State Religion is a policy advocacy group, lobbying the government constitutionally to declare Buddhism as Thailand’s national religion. It argues that such a legal move would defend Buddhism from internal and external threats, particularly from the eroding relevance of Buddhism in Thai everyday life and the raging Muslim insurgency in the country’s deep south.32 Its policy agenda is aligned with the junta’s nationalist policies to propagate moral values, gaining it increased influence in the drafting of the new constitution.
Development NGOs and Union Activists
Development NGOs and union activists supported reformist and democratic forces in the 1990s but have gradually moved toward a more conservative position, eventually joining the PAD’s and PDRC’s struggle against democracy. These civil society organizations include trade and state-enterprise unions as well as health and development NGOs such as AIDS Network, Southern Federation of Small Scale Fishers, Northern Farmer Alliance, Ecology Movement, the Alternative Agricultural Network of Isan, Thai Volunteer Service, the Consumers’ Association, and Slum Dwellers Group.33
NGOs have actively participated in antidemocracy coalitions for three key reasons. First, many development NGOs disagreed with Thaksin’s economic policies, which they felt would destroy the community-based subsistence economy and Thailand’s unique village culture.34 His neoliberal policies frustrated union activists.35 Second, in typically populist style, Thaksin considered the NGOs to be interlopers, meddling between him and his grassroots supporters. Consequently, he silenced their criticisms through various patterns of repression.36 Lastly, most development NGOs subscribe to notions of communitarianism; in the Thai context, this philosophy values traditional political order over representative democracy, which is perceived as inherently Western and thus culturally inappropriate.37
Three key characteristics of Thailand’s conservative civil society may be drawn from this overview, some of which are distinct from conservative society elsewhere. First, despite different groups’ divergent paths of development, this segment of civil society tends to have similar doubts concerning the values of representative democracy. This is particularly the case when electoral politics challenge fundamental ideologies that these diverse groups commonly hold, namely nationalist communitarianism, royalism, and morality-based despotism.
Second, the proliferation of conservative civil society groups is a reaction to change in the political order, similar to conservative civil society in other countries. These groups receive tremendous support from a large segment of the populace who fear far-reaching transformations.38 In Thailand, sources of change range from the rise of allegedly populist politicians and the rural population’s shift in loyalty away from traditional institutions to the possible weakening of royal influence—the last fear being especially acute since the death of King Bhumibol. Although the younger generation and those who have benefited from political transformation may be eager for change, a significant part of the population supports conservative groups that will defend the old political order. The mobilization of civil society against democracy reflects this increased social polarization.
Finally, Thailand’s conservative civil society is built on a coalition of ideologically diverse groups. Traditional elites and nationalist-royalist movements gained political momentum at the same time that Thaksin isolated NGOs, the media, and constituents outside his northern and northeastern footholds. In addition, ideologies entrenched in Thai society enabled elites and nationalist-royalist movements to realign their coalition. They successfully incorporated grievances of different civil society groups into their antidemocratic agenda. This agenda seeks to attribute social upheaval, polarization, immoral politics, corruption, neoliberal encroachment, and growing republicanism to elected politicians empowered by representative democracy. This strategically diversified and unified political messaging, when used against opponents, allowed traditional elites and nationalist-royalist movements to claim a popular basis for their activism. The result was the paradoxical invoking of “people’s power” against democracy in 2006 and 2014.
1 Prajak Kongkiati, “Counter-Movements in Democratic Transition: Thai Right-Wing Movements After the 1973 Popular Uprising,” Asian Review 19 (2008): 101–34.
2 Charles F. Keyes, “‘Cosmopolitan’ Villagers and Populist Democracy in Thailand,” South East Asia Research 20, no. 3 (2012): 343–60, https://doi.org/10.5367/sear.2012.0109; and Andrew Walker, Thailand’s Political Peasants: Power in the Modern Rural Economy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012).
3 Kevin Hewison, “Reluctant Populists: Learning Populism in Thailand,” International Political Science Review 38, no. 4 (2017): 426–40, https://doi.org/10.1177/0192512117692801.
4 Ian MacKinnon, “Thailand Protest Strands Thousands of Tourists at Bangkok Airport,” Guardian, November 26, 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/nov/26/thailand-protests-airport.
5 Uchain Chiangsane, “Political Activism of the PAD” [in Thai], Prachatai, January 5, 2009, http://www.prachatai.com/journal/2009/01/19583; and Chairat Charoensin-Olan, Aesthetics and People Politics [in Thai] (Bangkok: Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University, 2011).
6 Thongchai Winichakul, “Toppling Democracy,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 38, no. 1 (2008): 11–37, https://doi.org/10.1080/00472330701651937; and Kasian Tejapira, “The Irony of Democratization and the Decline of Royal Hegemony in Thailand,” Southeast Asian Studies 5, no. 2 (2016): 219–37, https://doi.org/10.20495/seas.5.2_219.
7 Bencharat Sae Chua, “Revisiting ‘People’s Politics,’” Cultural Anthropology, September 23, 2014, https://culanth.org/fieldsights/576-revisiting-people-s-politics.
8 Thongchai Winichakul, “The Antidemocratic Roots of the Thai Protesters,” Al Jazeera America, December 26, 2013, http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2013/12/the-antidemocraticrootsofthethaiprotesters.html.
9 Marc Saxer, “How Thailand’s Middle Class Rage Threatens Democracy,” Social Europe, January 23, 2014, https://www.socialeurope.eu/thailands-middle-class; and Pavin Chachavalpongpun, “Why Is the Thai Middle Class Not Fond of Democracy,” Prachatai, January 9, 2017, https://prachatai.com/english/node/6822.
10 Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, “The 2014 Military Coup in Thailand: Implications for Political Conflicts and Resolution,” Asian Journal of Peacebuilding 5, no. 1 (2017): 131–54, http://hdl.handle.net/10371/134782.
11 Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, “The Policing of Anti-Government Protests: Thailand’s 2013–2014 Demonstrations and a Crisis of Police Legitimacy,” Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 4, no. 1 (2017): 95–122, https://doi.org/10.1177/2347797016689224.
12 Prajak Kongkirati, “Thailand’s Failed 2014 Election: The Anti-Election Movement, Violence and Democratic Breakdown,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 46, no. 3 (2016): 467–85, https://doi.org/10.1080/00472336.2016.1166259.
13 The first short-lived online vigilante group was the “Rally Bangkokians to Oppose Evil Red Shirts.” See, “Thai Netizen Network Report: Thailand Freedom and Internet Culture,” Thai Netizen Network, 2013, 77, https://thainetizen.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/netizen-report-2011-en.pdf.
14 Wolfram Schaffar, “New Social Media and Politics in Thailand: The Emergence of Fascist Vigilante Groups on Facebook,” Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies 9, no. 2 (2016): 223, https://aseas.univie.ac.at/index.php/aseas/article/viewFile/1415/1476.
15 Thaweeporn Kummetha, “Witch Hunts at Rally Sites and on the Internet,” Prachatai, January 23, 2014, https://prachatai.com/english/node/3837.
16 Thaweeporn Kummetha, “Misunderstanding the Internet, Misunderstanding the Users: Cases From Thailand,” Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia no. 20 (September 2016), https://kyotoreview.org/yav/misunderstanding-internet-thailand/. Notedly, antiestablishment dissidents founded a counter group, called “Anti-Social Sanction,” using similar tactics of online bullying to get back at the SS members.
17 Seksan Rojjanametakul, “Steady Rise of Fascism Here Is Terrifying,” Bangkok Post, April 28, 2014, https://www.bangkokpost.com/print/406983/.
18 “Rose Shocked by 112 Case Filed by Her Parents” [in Thai], Matichon, April 20, 2014, http://m.matichon.co.th/readnews.php?newsid=1397978153.
19 Schaffar, “New Social Media and Politics in Thailand,” 229. For the RCO page, see https://www.facebook.com/thaigoldmedal/.
20 One Cyber Scout told a reporter that the one-day training workshop focused on “the history of the king . . . and how divine he is.” See Eva Blum-Dumontet, “Friends, Followers, Police Officers, and Enemies: Social Surveillance in Thailand,” Privacy International, 2016, https://www.privacyinternational.org/node/935; and “Cyber Scout, Executioners of Lèse Majesté Websites” [in Thai], Manager Online, July 12, 2010, https://www.manager.co.th/Cyberbiz/ViewNews.aspx?NewsID=9530000095980.
21 Schaffar, “New Social Media and Politics in Thailand,” 224.
22 Pinkaew Laungaramsri, “Mass Surveillance and the Militarization of Cyberspace in Post-Coup Thailand,” Austrian Journal of South-East Asia Studies 9, no. 2 (2016): 204–5, https://aseas.univie.ac.at/index.php/aseas/article/download/1356/1473.
23 “Lèse Majesté Torture Continues,” Political Prisoners in Thailand, May 30, 2016, https://thaipoliticalprisoners.wordpress.com/tag/network-of-volunteer-citizens-to-protect-the-monarchy-on-facebook/; and “Admin of Anti-Ignorance Association File Cases Against 20 Anti-Monarchy Pages” [in Thai], Prachatai, April 27, 2016, https://prachatai.com/journal/2016/04/65476.
24 “One Month After His Majesty’s Death: Analysis of Conflicts and 112 Charges” [in Thai], Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, November 15, 2016, http://www.tlhr2014.com/th/?p=2754.
25 James Buchanan, “The Dark Side of Thai Royalism,” Diplomat, October 26, 2016, https://thediplomat.com/2016/10/the-darker-side-of-thai-royalism/.
26 Recently, a blind man who is the head of Thailand’s National Association of Visually Disabled People filed a lèse-majesté case against a blind woman, arguing that it is his patriotic duty to report such behavior to the authorities indiscriminately. See Sirayut Tangprasert, “Talk With Pipatchai Srakawee, Blind Man Who Pressed 112 Charge Against a Blind Woman” [in Thai], Prachatai, January 9, 2018, https://www.prachatai.com/journal/2018/01/74875.
27 Conventionally, monks are prohibited from participating in any political activities, including voting. Nonetheless, Buddhist monks in Thailand have participated in both progressive movements and right-wing activism. The latter became a common phenomenon in Theravada Buddhist–dominated countries such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka. See, for instance, Charles Keyes, “Theravada Buddhism and Buddhist Nationalism: Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand,” Review of Faith and International Affairs 14, no. 4 (2016): 41–52, https://doi.org/10.1080/15570274.2016.1248497. Militant Buddhist networks have become transnational over the years, evident in the support for the Ma Ba Tha movement participating in the genocide of ethnic minority Rohingyas in Myanmar. See Abby Seiff, “A Thai Monk Is Using Social Media to Preach Violence Against Muslims,” Newsweek, April 15, 2016, http://www.newsweek.com/2016/04/15/thailand-monk-apichart-social-media-muslim-violence-443698.html.
28 Arnaud Dubus, Buddhism and Politics in Thailand (Bangkok: The Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia, 2017), 19, 35–36, 63; and Marja-Leena Heikkilā-Horn, “Santi Asoke Buddhism and the Occupation of Bangkok International Airport,” Current Research on South-East Asia 3, no. 1 (2010): 31–47, https://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/bitstream/handle/document/36291/ssoar-aseas-2010-1-heikkila-horn-Santi_Asoke_Buddhism_and_the.pdf?sequence=1.
29 Phuangthong R. Pakawapan, State and Uncivil Society in Thailand at the Temple of Preah Vihear (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2013), 58–59.
30 “Saffron Patriotic Rebel: Laung Pu Buddha Isara, the Brave Monk Fighting the Tyrant” [in Thai], Online Manager, February 5, 2014, http://www.manager.co.th/Home/ViewNews.aspx?NewsID=9570000014258.
31 Suluck Lamubol, “Understanding Thai-style Buddhism,” Prachatai, February 28, 2014, https://prachatai.com/english/node/3883.
32 James Taylor, Buddhism and Postmodern Imaginings in Thailand: The Religious of Urban Space (London: Routledge, 2008); David Hutt, “Thai Nationalism and the Rise of Buddhist Extremism,” Southeast Asia Globe, February 11, 2016, http://sea-globe.com/thai-nationalism-and-the-rise-of-buddhist-extremism/.
33 Giles Ji Ungpakorn, “Why Have Most Thai NGOs Chosen to Side With the Conservative Royalists, Against Democracy and the Poor,” Interface 1, no. 2 (2009): 233, http://www.interfacejournal.net/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/Interface-1-2-pp233-237-Ungpakorn.pdf; Oliver Pye and Wolfram Schaffar, “The 2006 Anti-Thaksin Movement in Thailand: An Analysis,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 38, no. 1 (2008): 41, https://doi.org/10.1080/00472330701651945; and Kengkij Kitirianglarp and Kevin Hewison, “Social Movements and Political Opposition in Contemporary Thailand,” Pacific Review 22, no. 4 (2009): 451–77, https://doi.org/10.1080/09512740903127978.
34 Somchai Phatharathananunth, “Civil Society Against Democracy,” Cultural Anthropology, September 23, 2014, https://culanth.org/fieldsights/575-civil-society-against-democracy; and Nidhi Aeusrivongse, “The Politics of NGOs” [in Thai], Prachatai, October 14, 2014, https://prachatai.com/journal/2014/10/55980.
35 Kasian Tejapira, “Toppling Thaksin,” New Left Review 39 (2006): 37.
36 Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, “Thaksin’s Populism,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 38, no. 1 (2008): 62–83, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00472330701651960.
37 Erik Martinez Kuhonta and Aim Sinpeng, “Democratic Regression in Thailand: Ambivalent Role of Civil Society and Political Institutions,” Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 36, no. 3 (2014): 333–55, https://doi.org/10.1080/00472336.2016.1164229; and Thorn Pitidol, “Redefining Democratic Discourse in Thailand’s Civil Society,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 46, no. 3 (2016): 520–37, http://muse.jhu.edu/article/563756.
38 Marc Saxer, In the Vertigo of Change: How to Resolve Thailand’s Transformation Crisis (Bangkok: Openworlds, 2014).