Are Protests in Thailand a Colour Revolution? No

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By Samaidaeng Thungdin and Gabriel Ernst

Every time I find a new leftist media outlet I always type Thailand in the search bar to see if there’s been any coverage. More often than not, there’s nothing, but on the rare occasion that Thailand does appear, it’s typically an article denouncing the Thai protest movement at large as a ‘colour revolution’. Often this claim is made with little to no explanation as to what a ‘colour revolution’ is in the opinion of the writers. However, given that this is appearing within the context of leftist media, it’s safe to assume that ‘colour revolution’ refers to a mass protest movement controlled or instigated by foreign (western) powers, much like the colour revolutions in post-Soviet Europe and Central Asia.

Applying this stamp to Thailand, however, is lazy, ignorant and inaccurate. Those abroad who claim to understand the complexities of the quasi-military dictatorship Kingdom seem confident enough to write off the entire movement with a broad brush, painting protestors as ignorant cannon fodder for the CIA. While little attention is paid to the voices of every single Thai leftist publication, writer and activist, all of whom are broadly aligned with the movement against the reactionary quasi-dictatorship currently in power.

Notably, the most active street protest group at the time of writing is FreeYouth/REDEM, who caused a massive upset among the Thai liberal media establishment when they changed their logo to the Hammer and Sickle late last year. FreeYouth is openly and unapologetically communist, recently they’ve aligned themselves with the wildcat gig economy delivery drivers Riders Union and are working hand in hand with other radical unions to organise mass protests, fighting the Thai state in the streets and supporting union efforts. If you’d like to hear directly from FreeYouth in English we’ve interviewed them a number of times. 1 2 3 4.

On the subject of unions, one collective of labour unions made a deliberate expression of support for the anti-government protesters last year; this group also uses the hammer and sickle in their banners. This is in stark contrast to many western-centric NGO’s with ties to international labour organisations that work to depoliticise unions and strip the Thai labour movement of any political power. If anything, this is a greater threat to Thai workers than any other western involvement.

While the street protests in 2020 were initially led by the far more liberal figures of Penguin and Rung from the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration (Thammasat) group, their popularity and relevance have clearly waned in 2021, giving way to the more radical movements of FreeYouth (avowed Communists) and Dao Din (avowed Anarchists), just by the numbers FreeYouth have four times the follower count of Thammasat. Of course, there are still a large number of liberal groups involved in the protests but FreeYouth and DaoDin would certainly seem like strange comrades for the CIA to align with. It should be noted that DaoDin’s radical credentials are quietly viewed with scepticism by some on the Thai left, you can read about their ideology here.

Pai DaoDin – A key organiser in DaoDin and UNME of Anarchy

The more likely explanation is that those who see the protesters as liberal opposition controlled by the west do not actually speak Thai and have little understanding of Thailand and its politics. To be fair, the English language reportage of Thailand is certainly dismal, hence the need for Din Deng. Of course, western media are reluctant to report on the more radical elements in the movement, nor are they keen to side with the clearly oppressive and reactionary military. Instead, they dedicate their ink to the more western inclined liberal groups, who are keen to parrot western ‘democratic’ tropes back to eager journalists, in effect liberal-washing the movement to outsiders. However, even those who have little insight into the country needn’t look too hard to see western influences meddling in the sovereignty of the kingdom, in fact, it’s staring them right in the face.

The Royal Thai Armed Forces have been an absolute constant in Thai politics ever since 1932 and a close ally to the USA since the end of WWII, enacting around 13 coups within the period. During the war on Vietnam Thailand was used as a staging point for bringing in US troops and hosted US air force bases for bombing runs across Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Meanwhile, within the Kingdom, The Phoenix Program was in full effect, focused on wiping out the Chinese-backed Communist Party of Thailand insurgency.

Still today the Thai military and US share a close relationship, with the Cobra Gold joint training operations taking place in Thailand every year, one of the largest military exercises in the world. While researching this article we also spoke to a mid-level Thai military officer, who told us that the US Military is still deeply embedded in Thailand, regularly taking part in training and intelligence sharing, though this is no secret. Other more discrete sources have told us of the close intelligence-sharing relationship between Thailand and Israel, who often collaborate tracking Hezbollah members (apparently Pattaya is one of their favourite holiday spots).

Thai and US soldiers during meet during the Cobra Gold exercises

Notably, the current Military Dictator turned Prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-Cha comes from a regiment expressly set up by the US military to hunt down and murder communists within Thailand and across Southeast Asia, such operations continued as late as 1983 (as far as we’re aware). Again it should seem strange that the US would dump one of their longest-serving anti-communist allies in favour of the FreeYouth communists, but such is the logic when you don’t actually understand the politics of a country.

Such uninformed opinions have resulted in online leftist media seemingly being in agreement with Thai conservatives, as they too have been blaming the protests on US involvement, despite their adoration of the military. Far-right Thai conservative media has often been cited in western leftist media as ‘evidence’.

Many also point to the ‘Milk Tea Alliance’, a seemingly western-backed pan-Asian/ Anti-China ‘alliance’, seen predominantly on Twitter. Indeed, there are suspicious cases of Twitter algorithm manipulation on behalf of Milk Tea Alliance hashtags, whether these are carried out in Langley or by some individual online activist in Hong Kong we just don’t know. Nonetheless, despite the alliance winning the adoration of mainstream western media, thus far it’s little more than a Twitter cheerleading squad with no material solidarity in the real world. Furthermore, defining what the alliance actually is seems to be much like the ‘blind men and an elephant’, in that it depends on what aspect of the phenomenon you’re focused on. For some, it’s an Anti-China movement, for others a pan-Asian recognition of solidarity against domestic dictatorships, while for many of the Thai left, who again aren’t overly active on Twitter, it’s not given a second thought.

The supposed Anti-China Milk Tea Alliance argument also relies heavily on the assumption that Thailand’s government is drifting towards China’s sphere of influence, hence the US wants to overthrow the military’s grip on the country. However, given the aforementioned extensive Thai-US military cooperation this seems to be highly unlikely. While China’s economic interests are indeed spreading outwards, as they have done for the past two decades, there is little evidence that Thai foreign policy is conducive to China’s interests against that of the US. Rather the Thai establishment is benefiting from Chinese investment for the time being, though ultimately being a reactionary, capitalist system of governance it is clear that, if push came to shove, the Royal Thai Armed Forces would side with their oldest allies, The USA. There have even been alarming reports of US Special Forces newly being stationed at an air force base in Northern Thailand (close to the Chinese border with Laos and Burma), which would be unsurprising given The US military’s extensive activity within the Kingdom today.

Indeed, Sinophobia and anti-Chinese sentiment exist in the country, much of it whipped up by and concentrated in the western allied media, but other than a small handful of liberal activists and their ever reliant Twitter cheerleaders, such sentiment has made little to no transition into the political realm.

Here we should acknowledge that groups like The NED (CIA cut-outs) are actively funding within liberal Thai circles, as they are worldwide. The express purpose for this, however, is not to instigate a colour revolution, but rather to remain friendly with both sides. The USA is just as happy to work with elected liberal capitalists like former Prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra as they are with unelected military strongmen like Payut Chan-o-Cha, hence they maintain a relationship with both, unwilling to fall foul of either should the power shift.

Such funding allows these liberal groups to extend their voices beyond their means, particularly to foreign observers, painting a discoloured picture of the situation. This is compounded by Thai, western orientated, liberals often being far more active online and better educated in English than the more radical constituents in the country. These liberals are described by outspoken communist professor and writer Soravis Jayanama as “frenemies” (friends for now, enemies for later).

This seems to echo the sentiment across the Thai left, who are willing to work with liberal groups at present to achieve their immediate aim of toppling the government, but aren’t willing to compromise their positions for liberal support. As Baimaii, a lead coordinator for FreeYouth told us “Right now we’re hot, it’s time for them (liberals) to follow us.”

Certainly, this isn’t to say that the movement in Thailand is a leftist one, rather that there are significant leftist elements, who at times are leading it (right now they’re on the front foot). Liberal thinking is definitely still dominant in the minds of the majority of those opposed to the government, but we’re without a doubt seeing a shift in a leftward direction.

The desire to denounce any protest movement which isn’t explicitly communicating its Marxist-Leninist intent in the English language as a colour revolution ultimately is both ignorant and self-defeating. It ignores the hard work and radical action of comrades who aren’t extremely active on sites like Reddit or Twitter catering to the whims of the western left. Such denouncements instead promote a liberal-washed account of events drawn from western media. It also denies agency to our comrades in the global south if we start with the baseline assumption that they are powerless to the mastery of the west. A classic trope in the western canon, that ‘the world revolves around Cleethorpes’. Regions in the global south have their own complex political cultures that don’t always fit the same paradigms seen in the west. In Thailand for example, it’s common to see Maoist forming non-hierarchical mutual aid groups and Anarchists raising the hammer and sickle flag. The cooperation between the comrades behind this very publication is further evidence of that.

Uninformed colour revolution denouncements defeat the purpose of international solidarity, which ironically, is exactly the purpose of western political hegemony, to alienate and destroy cross border anti-capitalist movements. This by no means decries the right for comrades to speak on leftwing movements anywhere other than where they are. We simply hope to stress the importance of not presenting an opinion as informed and authoritative when it may not be. Perhaps we could even be as harsh as to say: no investigation, no right to speak. 

Some leftist Thai accounts:

FreeYouth

https://twitter.com/FreeYOUTHth

DinDeng

https://twitter.com/DinDengTh

Analysand

https://twitter.com/the_analysand

Thammasat University Marxism Studies

https://www.facebook.com/Tumarxisms

Pud

https://www.facebook.com/pudproduction

Kengkit

https://twitter.com/Kengkij2

Museum of popular history
https://twitter.com/commonners

Aum Neko

https://twitter.com/cuteaum

This article was originally published at Din Deng, a journal of radical views on Thailand and Southeast Asia. You can also check out their podcast Analysand for more great content.