Thai royalists defend Putin as pro-democracy camp condemns war

Supporters of Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida gather before a religious ceremony, at The Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, on Nov 1, 2020.
PHOTO: Reuters file

After years of defending Thailand's monarchy from a pro-democracy movement, the Southeast Asian country's royalist groups have turned their focus to Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin as he continues to wage war against Ukraine.

In recent weeks, the Facebook page of royalist group Thai Move Institute has been flooded with posts about the downside of sanctions imposed on Russia, and reports of questionable veracity - many from a website styling itself as The Truth - saying that Ukraine used fake news to "slander" Putin.

The group's motto is "Thailand's direction upon the royal footsteps". It is part of a network of conservative voices allied to the military and royalist establishment led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

These voices have denounced the country's youth-led pro-democracy movement, which has held street protests calling for reform of the monarchy and constitutional changes, and railed against online attacks on King Maha Vajiralongkorn's wealth and conduct.

Royalists have supported the use of Section 112 of Thailand's criminal code - the lèse-majeste law that outlaws criticism of the royal family and carries punishments of up to 15 years in jail - against members of the pro-democracy movement.

Thailand has become increasingly polarised in recent years, with a deepening ideological divide that can be traced back to at least 2006 - when former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a coup - pitching conservative, pro-establishment voices against pro-democracy activists seeking change.

Tensions have only heightened as the pandemic-battered economy struggles with a subdued tourism outlook and higher bills for importing energy.

The population is also divided over Russia's invasion, with some groups, as in other Southeast Asian nations, stating their belief that Kyiv in tandem with Nato and the US forced Putin's hand.

Critics say Thailand's royalists came out in favour of Putin either as a "knee-jerk reaction" to the opposition's stance on the war, or as a result of long-held resentments towards the US, which some Thais perceive as a threat to the country's monarchy.

While Thailand voted to condemn Moscow's aggression against Ukraine during a UN General Assembly session in March, it stopped short of voting Russia out of the UN Human Rights Council, abstaining on April 7 alongside other Asian nations such as Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and India.

Thailand's Permanent Mission to the UN said in a statement that the country was "deeply concerned with the escalation of conflicts and humanitarian crises in Ukraine" especially with the "alleged human rights atrocities against civilians, including in Bucha".

But it said suspending a state's membership of a UN body was a decision that "cannot be taken lightly", adding "we are of the view that any action taken should be impartial, transparent and comprehensive".

Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of Thailand’s opposition Move Forward Party, issued a statement supporting Russia’s suspension from the UN Human Rights Council. PHOTO: Facebook

However, opposition politician Pita Limjaroenrat has taken a different stance.

On April 9, the leader of the Move Forward Party - which has denounced the 2014 coup that first brought Prayuth to power and wants Thailand's lèse-majeste law revoked - issued a statement on Facebook supporting Russia's suspension from the UN Human Rights Council.

Tyrell Haberkorn, a professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Thailand's official statements on Russia, and its decision not to support the human rights council vote in particular, "indicate the international effects of rising authoritarianism domestically".

Royalist support for Russia "seems to be a knee-jerk reaction in response to the condemnation of the invasion by the democracy movement", she said.

"Were the democracy movement to support Russia, then I suspect conservative royalists would support Ukraine."

Zachary Abuza, a professor specialising in Southeast Asian politics and security at the US' National War College, said Putin had resonated with conservatives in Thailand, particularly his "authoritarian policies, defence of Russian nationalism and traditional values".

"The Thai government and their ultraroyalist backers are geriatrics, completely out of touch with the values, mores, and interests of the younger Thai population," he said.

"They refuse to accept that Thai society has changed, they have a nostalgic, and cherry-picked, view of Thai history and culture, similar to Putin."

READ ALSO: Russia starting to reinforce positions in eastern Ukraine: US official

Conspiracies abound

In recent weeks former major general and medical doctor Rienthong Nanna, an ultraroyalist, has been posting pro-Russia messages on Facebook, including discussing the election wins last week of pro-Putin politicians Viktor Orban, Hungary's prime minister, and Aleksandar Vučić, the populist Serbian president.

He is the founder of the Rubbish Collection Organisation, an online vigilante group that scours the internet for potential lèse-majeste cases and likens offenders to human garbage.

A day after Russia began its military assault on Ukraine, Rienthong said: "I'd like to send my support to President Putin and the Russian army. I have admired your leadership, bravery and resolution. You have always been an honest and trustful friend to Thailand like President Xi Jinping ."

The post was liked more than 18,000 times.

Sondhi Limthongkul, another royalist who staged anti-government street protests in the months before former prime minister Thaksin was forced out of power, recently wrote to his 3.5 million Facebook followers about the Bucha massacre.

One commenter said he believed the killings were staged because "it's what the Ukrainian president is good at".

Supporters of Move Forward, however, argue Thailand could burnish its international credentials by taking a stand against the killings in Bucha, where more than 300 people are thought to have died. The pro-democracy camp has urged Prayuth's government to issue a stronger condemnation of Russia.

Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, a visiting fellow at Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and an assistant professor at Chulalongkorn University's Institute of Asian Studies, said establishment figures in Thailand were wary of US-led efforts to intervene in other countries' affairs.

A woman with a face mask and picture of Putin daubed in red takes part in an anti-war protest outside the Russian embassy in Bangkok last month. PHOTO: Reuters

They were particularly sceptical about Washington's "democracy promotion", she said, as it "could threaten not only the elites' status quo but Thai sovereignty".

Royalists viewed US-led military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya as evidence that the CIA was pushing for regime change to promote democracy, Janjira said, which she said clashes with the idea of "royal nationalism" that sees Thai national identity as interwoven with the supremacy and survival of the monarchy.

"This narrative has been amplified on the internet in the aftermath of [Thailand's] 2014 military putsch," Janjira said. "With the international community, particularly the US, pressuring the junta to reinstall democracy, conspiracy stories frame the pressure as part of a CIA scheme for regime change."

"The storyline also links the US' global democracy advocacy and funding for anti-coup groups with an effort to topple the junta, restore a Thaksin-led government, and reinforce Western hegemony in Southeast Asia," she said.

Abuza, from the National War College, said Bangkok had followed Beijing's lead when it came to its official stance on the war.

"While China may look at the Russian military's poor showing in the war with consternation, China is not going to abandon Putin. That gives Prayuth political cover," Abuza said.

"The younger generation in Thailand sees the invasion for what it is, the extreme action of a dictator with unchecked political power who is running the country into the ground, gutting the rule of law, leaving it economically weaker and more isolated internationally."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.