Table of Contents

Royalist, right-wing civic networks in Thailand represent the way in which the country’s civil society actors have repositioned their allegiances with great powers in light of a changing geopolitical landscape. Ideologically, Thailand’s royalist activists subscribe to royal nationalism centered on the supremacy of the monarchy as a marker of national identity. The emergence of royalist networks was shaped by the U.S.-led countercommunism effort in Southeast Asia from the 1950s to the 1970s. The royalists, in turn, endorsed the United States as an international partner in the face of democratic challenges from the Left.

However, this ideological proximity changed after the Cold War, when royalist networks began to see the United States’ global promotion of democracy as fostering Thailand’s domestic pro-democracy struggle. Royalist media outlets and activists have increasingly adopted an anti-American position and pivoted toward China and, recently, Russia as forces that counteract the United States. This change in royalist networks’ approach to geopolitics has been seen most clearly in their endorsements of China’s COVID-19 vaccine in 2021 and of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine in 2022.

U.S. Countercommunist Campaigns and Thailand’s Royalist Civic Networks

Anti-Americanism among Thailand’s royalist groups today contrasts starkly with their staunch support for the United States’ efforts in Southeast Asia during the Cold War. At that time, royalist support in Thailand stemmed from perceived external and internal threats to the country’s monarchy. Externally, Southeast Asia after World War II was mired in episodes of political turmoil, in which communist movements challenged and, in some cases, ousted governments friendly to the United States.

The then Thai government was alarmed by sweeping communist influence—a concern shared by Washington, which implemented policies to contain so-called communist dominoes. Through massive financial support, covert operations, and bilateral agreements, the United States ensured the staying power of Thailand’s monarchy-military nexus. In return, Thailand hosted U.S. military bases and helped suppress communism in the country. Royalist civic groups participated actively in these efforts by countering local protests against U.S. army bases and joining forces with the government to quell leftist democratic movements.

The proliferation of royalist activism in this period was also a response to growing dissent against the royalist elites. The security apparatus—especially the notorious Internal Security Operations Command and Border Patrol Police—founded, trained, and instrumentalized various right-wing royalist groups in information operations against the Communist Party of Thailand and its many sympathizers.1

Clashes between left- and right-wing supporters came to a head in the late 1970s, when antigovernment protesters demanded the United States withdraw its troops from Thailand, among other calls for political change. However, royalist groups attributed the palace’s survival to the presence of U.S. troops in the country and therefore did not subscribe to the protesters’ agenda. From this historical perspective, the fault line between Thailand’s pro- and anti-U.S. stances was demarcated between right-wing royalist and left-wing democratic movements, respectively.

The End of Royalist Alignment With the United States

The changing global order after the Cold War prompted royalist networks to reposition their relations with the United States. The end of the war, followed by speculation about what political scientist Francis Fukuyama called the “end of history,” meant that Washington no longer needed deterrence in Southeast Asia against its Soviet rival; the geopolitical utility of Thai royalist networks waned accordingly.2 Most importantly, Thailand seemed to be on course for democratization after the country’s 1992 democratic opening. However, as pro-democracy forces were seen as a threat to the monarchy, this democratic experiment was short-lived.

Janjira Sombatpoonsiri
Janjira Sombatpoonsiri is an assistant professor at the Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, and an associate at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies.

Since 2005, Thailand has been embroiled in political conflicts that divide political actors into pro- and antiestablishment blocs. In this light, royalist groups have been remobilized in alliance with various elite actors to defend the crown. These groups’ offline and online activism seeks to monitor and flag antimonarchy content on social media, penalize violators of monarchy-related laws, counter antiestablishment protests, and aid the autocratic regime in undermining opposition parties. These groups include ultraroyalist wings in the People’s Alliance for Democracy and the former People’s Democratic Reform Committee, various civic groups, royalist media outlets, and royalist celebrities.

Royalists Against Regime Change

While this new generation of royalist activists remains committed to defending the monarchy, they diverge from their Cold War predecessors in their hostility toward the United States. From the 1990s to the early 2000s, the United States’ ideological triumph and international legitimacy paved the way for the country to spearhead the liberal global order without substantive challenges from other major powers. On the one hand, this legitimacy enabled the U.S.-led promotion of global democracy and human rights. In Thailand, this backdrop arguably benefited the country’s democratic development in the 1990s. On the other hand, the neoliberal economic framework and U.S. military adventurism in, for instance, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya created a backlash against the United States as a perpetuator of neocolonialism—an accusation common among civic groups in the Global South.

Thailand’s royalist groups go one step further, contending that the United States masterminds democratic regime change across the globe to sustain its hegemony. Unlike royalist rhetoric during the Cold War, which commended the United States for defending the Thai establishment and national security, the current mood suspects that U.S.-led democracy promotion threatens elite interests that equate to Thai sovereignty.

This narrative circulated on the internet after the 2014 military putsch and gained traction from 2020 onward amid antiestablishment demonstrations. For instance, the Thai Move Institute and its affiliated online outlets fanned the rhetoric that leading protesters in 2020 used funding from the United States to attack and attempt to overthrow the monarchy; this narrative has been reproduced in the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece.3 A similar allegation was often directed at the former opposition Future Forward Party, which was portrayed as serving U.S. interests at the expense of the Thai monarchy.4 This narrative is spread widely on the Facebook pages of royalist groups, where it shapes coordinated royalist campaigns against nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) accused of receiving Western money.

China and Russia as Antidotes to the United States

Over the past decade, Thailand’s royalist groups have looked to China and, to a lesser degree, Russia as friendly big brothers who, unlike the United States, respect Thai-style democracy—a euphemism for authoritarianism backed by the military and the monarchy. Especially the fraternity with China has cultural roots because of a large Chinese diaspora in Thailand and a long history of economic and political exchanges between the two countries.

Although the cordial relationship was disrupted after the Communist Party took over China in 1949, it resumed in the late 1970s and grew stronger mainly through trade and, recently, China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This rapprochement led Chinese President Xi Jinping and former Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-ocha, leader of the 2014 coup, to characterize Thailand and China as “one family,” reinforcing the old saying that China and Thailand are “kith and kin.”5

While focusing on strengthening its diplomatic relations with the Thai regime and business leaders, Beijing has recently tried to consolidate its soft power in at least two areas. The first is education: Thai universities host more Confucius Institutes than any other country in Asia.6 University exchanges have also led to massive numbers of Chinese students enrolling in Thai universities each year, while Mandarin has become one of the most studied foreign languages in Thai schools and colleges.7

The second area of Chinese soft power is the media. Among other forms of economic cooperation that the Belt and Road Initiative offers, Thailand, as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, signed a media and information cooperation agreement with China in 2015, making the Thai media landscape increasingly susceptible to Chinese content. For instance, China provides Thai television stations with free content from the party-controlled outlets Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television.

Despite these burgeoning people-to-people interactions, there is no evidence of China’s official endorsement of royalist groups, apart from commentary on Thailand’s antiestablishment protests that is reminiscent of royalist rhetoric. This is likely because, unlike in the cases of Hong Kong and Taiwan, China does not view Thailand as its own territory. Moreover, Thailand’s political situation is volatile; the opposition that the royalists are up against today may be in government tomorrow. Walking a tightrope, China might choose to engage primarily with the government of the day.

Compared with China, Russia has even more limited penetration into Thai civil society, despite historical ties between the Chakri and Romanov dynasties and, lately, revived military and economic bilateral relations. A 2016 survey showed that Thai respondents understood Russian influence in economic rather than cultural terms.8 Russia’s role in the Thai information landscape emerged in light of the 2014 coup, when the Facebook pages of news outlets with links to Russian actors allegedly orchestrated disinformation campaigns in Thailand.9 Information-based cooperation has increased in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Royalist outlets have borrowed talking points from Russia’s pro-regime media. In March 2022, the Russian Embassy in Bangkok met top brasses of the army-owned Channel 5.10 Despite these efforts, Russia’s direct connection with royalist civic groups remains limited.

The near absence of organized support from China and Russia for Thailand’s royalist groups contrasts markedly with the royalists’ enthusiastic endorsement of these countries. As such, instead of concrete forms of backing from these autocratic powers, royalist support should be understood from the perspective of having a common enemy. Royalist groups despise the United States, which is seen as an extension of the Western imperialism that threatens Thai sovereignty. The royalists have therefore aligned themselves with those powers that rise up against the United States.

Vaccine Politics and Support for Russia’s War in Ukraine

Vaccine politics during Thailand’s worst coronavirus wave in 2021 and Russia’s war in Ukraine in 2022 exemplify the way in which royalists’ anti-U.S. sentiment underpins their pivot toward the two autocratic powers. Thailand’s coronavirus vaccine rollout initially prioritized the shots manufactured by Sinovac and AstraZeneca, with the latter produced domestically by pharmaceuticals company Siam Bioscience, owned by Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn. As the Delta variant of COVID-19 drove tens of thousands of cases of the virus per day in 2021—in contrast to almost no cases in late 2020—large parts of the public blamed the wave on the government’s vaccine mismanagement, which had resulted in the delayed manufacture of AstraZeneca jabs.11 As a result, Thais were stuck with China’s Sinovac, which was known to be ineffective against the Delta variant.12

In this context, while opposition politicians and antiestablishment supporters criticized the government, they also denounced Sinovac and demanded the import of mRNA vaccines, which are believed to be more effective against the Delta variant. In early September 2021, a group of Thai celebrities publicly criticized Sinovac. Chinese netizens subsequently wanted to ban these celebrities from Chinese media. Eventually, the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok posted on its Facebook page a message condemning people who “devalued and slandered [the Sinovac vaccine] without reason.”13

Royalist groups in Thailand were quick to side with China while trying to flood anti-Sinovac messages on social media with anti-U.S. content. The civic group Thai Raksa Chart, for instance, apologized to Thailand’s “Chinese brothers and sisters,” insisting that “[the group] loves and is sincere to the Chinese people.”14 Two representatives of the group held up placards near the Chinese embassy in support of Sinovac.15 Pro-regime celebrities and academics followed by publicly apologizing to China on behalf of the Thai people. Moreover, in September 2021, the Thai Move Institute acknowledged China’s success in containing the coronavirus and thanked the Chinese government for supporting Thailand’s fight against the pandemic. A royalist mouthpiece, The Truth, also praised China—and, at times, Russia—for its “generosity” in donating vaccines to various developing countries.16

In highlighting why, in their view, China was more effective than the United States in tackling the coronavirus, royalist groups portrayed the United States as incapable of solving the economic and health crises that were perpetuating nationwide unrest and discrimination against Asians, including Thai Americans. In addition, the royalists criticized the West, led by the United States, for its “selfishness” in hoarding vaccines for its own populations.17 mRNA vaccines took a hit in the information war as royalist outlets repeatedly publicized the vaccines’ alleged deadly side effects compared with those of Sinovac. Relatedly, royalist media helped fan the conspiracy theories that the United States, rather than China, was the origin of the coronavirus and that the pandemic was premeditated to profit U.S. Big Pharma companies (see figure 1).

Royalist support for Russia’s war in Ukraine further reflects this interplay between anti-Americanism and the endorsement of major autocratic powers. Royalist resentment toward the United States is shaped by the perception that Washington masterminds antiestablishment movements in Thailand at the expense of the country’s monarchy. Because of the United States’ historical relations with the Thai royalist elites, many royalists express their disappointment at the erosion of the Thai-U.S. alliance.

Through this historical lens, members of the royalist intelligentsia, such as Anon Sakworawit, claim that Thailand during the Cold War was in a position similar to Ukraine today: “We sided with [the Americans], allowing their military bases in our country . . . but when they lost the Vietnam War, they left us to deal with the communist threat alone. . . . The Americans could not help us. Eventually [the then Thai prime minister] Krukrit [Pramot] got help from China. . . . The Americans betrayed us.”18 Anon has speculated that the United States will at some point abandon Ukraine as it once abandoned Thailand.

No longer Thailand’s friend, the United States is then blamed for the outbreak of the war in Ukraine that began in February 2022. Royalists believe that the U.S. interventionist doctrine led to Ukraine’s decision to seek membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). By considering Ukraine part of Russia’s territory, rather than a sovereign country, royalists justify Russia’s war as the rightful defense of national interests against U.S. meddling. Based on a topsy-turvy logic that omits the history of the Soviet empire, many Thai royalists link Russia’s war in Ukraine with the fight against the United States and Western colonialism in which, the royalists argue, the Global South, including Thailand, should join forces.

For instance, on the eve of the invasion, the leader of the Rubbish Collection Organization, Rienthong Naenna, praised Putin as “brave and decisive.”19 Meanwhile, Top News, a royalist television news program broadcast on YouTube and Channel 5, lamented that the thirty-five countries that had abstained from a United Nations vote to condemn Russia in March 2022 were victims of a U.S. empire. Royalists praised these countries’ abstentions as a courageous struggle against U.S. imperialism and painted Russia as sympathetic toward these smaller nations.20

Nonetheless, royalist media outlets believe that U.S. colonialism is declining and that Washington therefore lacks an incentive to back Ukraine. Royalists highlight the failure of sanctions against Russia, the detrimental side effects of these measures on the U.S. and European economies, the sanctions’ ability to fan the flames of domestic grievances, Russia’s military and nuclear superiority over the West, and the West’s abandonment of Ukraine. Rather than embrace Russia alone, royalist groups also point out that underdog countries like North Korea and the Gulf states are rallying behind Putin.

Ultimately, Thailand’s royalists counter the U.S. decline with the rise of illiberal, autocratic powers like Russia and China. In the face of Western sanctions, royalist mouthpieces consider Putin a strong leader and Russia a powerful country with strong allies such as China—and, sometimes, India. Autocratic decisiveness in striking enemies both inside and outside Russia explains why, for the royalists, Putin will thrive in this ideological battle. According to this narrative, Putin was right to crack down on pro-peace NGOs and pro-U.S. media. The war in Ukraine, similarly, allows Russia to “denazify armed NGOs” such as the Azov Regiment, which has been funded by the United States, according to Thai royalist groups.21 Although the outcome of the war remains to be seen, the royalists insist that Russia is winning. For them, decisive and ruthless leadership is needed for a new world order.

Conclusion

The convergence between Thailand’s domestic political struggle and global dynamics has shaped Thai royalists’ hostility toward the United States. In contrast to the Cold War era, when Washington was seen as a guarantor of the status quo based on the military and the monarchy, the United States’ promotion of global democracy now makes the country appear as a threat. Thailand’s royalist groups explicitly support China and Russia as an antidote to the United States.

This development coincides with growing discontent with the global liberal order not only in the Global South but also in the United States and Europe, with significant geopolitical ramifications. The end of the Cold War signified the ideological victory of political and economic liberalism spearheaded by the United States. But this hegemony has been challenged since the early 2000s, as Washington and the broader West have been embroiled in a series of military, economic, and political crises at home and abroad. Domestically, illiberal forces have pushed back against liberal policies by exploiting identity politics. Internationally, in the aftermath of the global war on terrorism and multiple revolutions that toppled autocrats, many in the Global South have contested democracy and human rights rhetoric by linking it with neocolonialism. The eroding legitimacy of the global liberal order opens up an opportunity for great powers such as China to offer an alternative order that diverges from a Western model and prioritizes sovereignty over universal values.

Thai royalists are not alone in repositioning their allegiances toward great powers. In Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore, for instance, political groups including religious radicals, academics, and netizens express anti-U.S. sentiment in light of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The conspiracy theory that domestic pro-democracy activism is funded by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to destabilize targeted countries circulates not only in Thailand but also in Cambodia, Hong Kong, and Vietnam.22 To be sure, disinformation campaigns from Russia and China help propagate this rhetoric, consolidating autocratic sharp power.23 However, this angle alone is incomplete. The post–Cold War overreach of the liberal order has made civil society actors in the Global South—illiberal or not—increasingly wary of the United States and caused them to shift their geopolitical alignment to competing great powers.

Janjira Sombatpoonsiri is an assistant professor at the Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, and an associate at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies.

The Carnegie Endowment thanks the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Ford Foundation for generous support that helps make the work of the Civic Research Network work possible. The views expressed in this publication are the responsibility of the authors alone.

Notes

1 Puangthong Pawakapan, Infiltrating Society: The Thai Military’s Internal Security Affairs (Singapore: ISEAS—Yusof Ishak Institute, 2021).

2 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).

3 Thai Move Institute, “To Whom Does the United States Pay 70 Million a Year? Anti-Monarchy Liberation Networks” (in Thai), Facebook, August 24, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/thaimoveinstitute/posts/349743986408921/.

4 See, for instance, “Thanathorn Begs the U.S. Government to Back Pro-Democracy Efforts in Thailand” (in Thai), Mettad, https://www.facebook.com/theMETTAD/?eid=ARCFqMTuoEOO_QBhYrDhKKF4RMJLjopZiNb93JDVMKKSsEl3_tDuLNXg-aV0vEecwumR18fnwNv%E2%80%A6.

5 Jittipat Poonkham, “The Bamboo Breaks: Thailand’s Diplomatic Challenge,” Asialink, September 9, 2021, https://asialink.unimelb.edu.au/insights/the-bamboo-breaks-thailands-diplomatic-challenge; Kornphanat Tungkeungkunt, “Culture and Commerce: China’s Soft Power in Thailand,” International Journal of China Studies 7, no. 2 (2016): 158.

6 Jane Tang, “China’s Information Warfare and Media Influence Spawn Confusion in Thailand,” Radio Free Asia, May 13, 2021, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/thailand-infowars-05132021072939.html.

7 Kornphanat, “Culture and Commerce,” 159.

8 Alexander Bukh, “Russia’s Image and Soft Power Resources in Southeast Asia: Perceptions Among Young Elites in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 38, no. 3 (2016): 445–475.

9 DFRLab, “Facebook Takes Down Inauthentic Pages With Connections to Thailand,” Medium, July 26, 2019, https://medium.com/dfrlab/facebook-takes-down-inauthentic-pages-with-connections-to-thailand-7dbf331f5ba5.

10 “Channel 5 Discusses With Russia’s Ambassador, Set to Sign an MoU on News Exchange” (in Thai), Prachachat Thurakid, March 22, 2022, https://www.prachachat.net/general/news-891811.

11 “Third-Worst Day: 207 Covid Deaths, 21,038 New Cases,” Bangkok Post, August 11, 2021, https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/2163643/third-worst-day-207-covid-deaths-21-038-new-cases%22.

12 Arun Saronchai, “China Pressured Thai Government Officials to Not Criticize Sinovac Vaccine,” Thai Enquirer, November 15, 2021, https://www.thaienquirer.com/34974/china-pressured-thai-government-officials-to-not-criticize-sinovac-vaccine.

13 Chinese Embassy Bangkok, “Oppose Unreasonable Accusations of Chinese Vaccines” (in Thai), Facebook, September 3, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/ChineseEmbassyinBangkok/posts/4352763731437065.

14 Thai Raksa, Facebook post, September 4, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/page/112605123796060/search/?q=%E0%B8%A7%E0%B8%B1%E0%B8%84%E0%B8%8B%E0%B8%B5%E0%B8%99%2C%20%E0%B8%88%E0%B8%B5%E0%B8%99. [[this link is broken – possible to replace?]]

15 “Thai Youth Hold Banners Thanking Chinese Government’s Friendship” (in Thai), The Truth, September 5, 2021, https://truthforyou.co/64556/?anm.

16 “Vaccine Partners of Russia and China Help Poor Countries” (in Thai), The Truth, May 13, 2021, https://truthforyou.co/47699/?aoh=.

17 Ibid.

18 “Comparing Ukraine to Thailand, We Used to Be Tricked by the United States but Realized Before It Was Too Late” (in Thai), The Truth, March 7, 2022, https://truthforyou.co/90552/.

19 “Rienthong Sends Moral Encouragement to Putin, Announces He Is Authoritarian and Appreciates Putin” (in Thai), Top News, February 25, 2022, https://www.tnews.co.th/social/560658.

20 “Decoding 141 Countries Condemning Russia, More Than Half the World Oppressed by the United States” (in Thai), Top News, March 6, 2022, https://www.topnews.co.th/news-clip/250027.

21 “The Honorable Man Named Putin” (in Thai), Thai Post, March 7, 2022, https://www.thaipost.net/columnist-people/98742.

22 “GT Investigates: US Wages Global Color Revolutions to Topple Govts for the Sake of American Control,” Global Times, December 2, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202112/1240540.shtml.

23 Christopher Walker, “What Is ‘Sharp Power’?,” Journal of Democracy 29, no. 3 (2018): 9–23, https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/what-is-sharp-power/.