The Southeast Asian Kingdom of Thailand is slated to hold general elections in May of this year. Thailand, with the second largest economy in ASEAN and with a population of nearly 70 million people, has grown far too close to China for Washington’s liking. Because of this, Washington sees the elections as an opportunity to remove the current circles of power and replace them with opposition parties they have supported for years and how have openly pledged to “rebalance” away from China, and toward the US.
The US government has invested millions of dollars over decades in Thailand to create media networks, lobbying groups, “rights” organizations, and even protest movements meant to aid Washington’s proxies of choice into power, or otherwise contest their defeat and reverse electoral outcomes in the streets.
Why is the US Meddling in Thailand?
The US is involved in political interference all along China’s periphery. This is done in a bid to encircle and contain China itself through the creation of US client regimes hostile toward Beijing. The US has already maneuvered a pro-Washington government into power in neighboring Malaysia to the south and is backing violent terrorism in Myanmar to the west after the military there ousted Washington’s government of choice in 2021.
Cambodia to Thailand’s east has embarked on an extensive campaign to uproot US-sponsored media organizations and opposition parties culminating in the recent jailing of Cambodian opposition leader, Kem Sokha, who openly admitted in a video that the US government was aiding him in a Serbia-style color revolution.
Thailand is being targeted because, despite the common misconception that Thailand is a major non-NATO ally of the US, over the last decade or more, Thailand has cultivated a strong and still-growing relationship with China.
China represents Thailand’s largest trade partner, its largest investor, and its largest infrastructure development partner. Notable in terms of infrastructure is a high-speed rail network already under construction that will connect Thailand to China via the high-speed rail line already completed and operating in Laos to Thailand’s north.
China is also Thailand’s largest source of tourism. Before COVID-19 closed the borders of many nations around the world to tourism, more tourists were arriving in Thailand from China than from all Western nations combined.
Thailand has also begun cooperating with China in terms of defense in recent years. Thailand is replacing a large amount of its aging US military hardware with Chinese alternatives. Thailand has purchased a variety of systems big and small from China including VT4 main battle tanks, a large variety of armored fighting vehicles, naval vessels including the Kingdom’s first modern submarines, and mobile air defense systems.
Thailand has also worked with China on jointly-developed weapon systems like the DTI-1 guided multiple launch rocket system and has conducted military exercises exclusively with China.
Thailand does still buy arms from the US, but in dwindling numbers. And while Thailand still hosts the annual Cobra Gold military exercises with the US (which China also participates in), it is clear Thailand seeks a balanced relationship that reflects Thai interests rather than being used as a proxy by any other nation, including the US. Because of China’s rise and America’s visible decline, Thai relations with both nations has adjusted accordingly.
Time is clearly on China’s side. Each year that goes by, China has more to offer the region economically and even militarily, while the US finds itself relying more and more on “security cooperation” which translates into enlisting in Washington’s proxy war with China. Nations, including Thailand, hesitant to play America’s proxy at the expense of their own people and economy, are targeted by US political interference.
Who is the US Backing in Thailand’s Upcoming Elections?
Among the opposition groups the US favors in Thailand is Pheu Thai, the latest rebranding of billionaire and fugitive Thaksin Shinawatra’s political party. Thaksin had served as prime minister from 2001-2006 before being ousted in a military coup. He had privatized Thai oil interests, committed Thai troops to the US occupation of Iraq, allowed the US to use Thai territory as part of its “extraordinary rendition” program, and attempted to sign off on a lopsided US-Thai free trade agreement without parliamentary approval.
In 2009 and 2010 in a bid to retake power, Thaksin and his political networks organized violent protests in the capital of Bangkok. In 2010 this included over 300 heavily armed militants leading to city-wide arson and the death of nearly 100 people including soldiers and police. Western media organizations including Reuters, the BBC, and CNN worked in concert with the violent protests to cover up provocations and exaggerate police and military responses in what is now recognized as a well-oiled propaganda method used amid US-sponsored color revolutions worldwide.
The US also favors Move Forward, the latest iteration of billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangki’s political party. Move Forward, and its previous iteration, Future Forward, have worked in parallel with Thaksin’s Pheu Thai Party both at the ballot box and in the streets.
Thanathorn’s Relationship to Washington
Before Thailand’s general elections in 2019, Thanathorn actually traveled to the US. Because Thanathorn secured the services of a US-based lobbying firm to arrange his visit, the US Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) required the paperwork be filed publicly. The papers reveal who he was there to meet. On page 26 of the digital document, it lists members of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, representatives of the US State Department, USAID, various US media organizations including Bloomberg, the New York Times, and NBC, as well as Freedom House, a subsidiary of the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
During his visit, Thanathorn also took a tour of Virgin’s Hyperloop One testing facility in Nevada.
Upon returning to Thailand, his newfound connections immediately translated into action.
He would organize a press event explaining why Thailand should cancel the Thai-Chinese high-speed rail project and replace it with so-far unproven “hyperloop” technology. During the event, he would claim:
I think over the past five years we have been giving too much importance to China. We want to reduce that and rebalance our relationship with Europe, with Japan, [and] with the US more.
Bloomberg in its article, “Thailand Needs Hyperloop, Not China-Built High-Speed Rail, Junta Critic Says,” would report:
A tycoon turned politician who opposes Thailand’s military government has criticized its $5.6 billion high-speed rail project with China because hyperloop technology offers a more modern alternative.
An option such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop One — which is working on building networks of pods traveling at airplane-like speeds — is better for Thailand as it would help the nation to be a technological leader, according to Future Forward Party head Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
In reality, China’s high-speed rail technology safely moves billions of passengers every year, while hyperloop technology has not moved a single passenger anywhere and likely will not for years to come. Thanathorn’s proposal, if taken seriously, would have led to the cancellation of a viable infrastructure project already paying dividends in China and Laos, and left Thailand with no alternative, setting back Thai development by years, if not decades, just to “rebalance” away from China.
It is a pattern that has repeated itself around the globe where US-backed client regimes, everywhere from Ukraine to Taiwan, make decisions to spite Washington’s adversaries at the expense of the people living under these respective administrations. Thailand appears poised to join them if opposition parties favored by the US take office later in 2023.
Ongoing Protests Leading up to 2023 Election Point to Political Instability
Thanathorn, after losing the elections in 2019, then having his political party dissolved for violating election laws, began leading street protests himself. Thai PBS would report in a 2019 article titled, “Thanathorn vows to bring people onto streets after rally in downtown Bangkok,” that:
Thousands of supporters of Future Forward Party turned out for an anti-military rally called by its leader Thanathorn Jungroongruangkit on the Skywalk at Pathumwan Intersection in downtown Bangkok Saturday evening.
The demonstrators chanted “Prayut get out” in probably the biggest political rally since the general election in March.
Addressing the demonstrators, Thanathorn said the rally was just a harbinger of more political activities against the Prayut government. He threatened to “bring people to the streets” next month.
He quickly handed the protests over to NED-funded organizations and took up a more background role as the protests turned violent. The protests not only seek to oust the current government, but also regularly target and attempt to undermine support for Thailand’s armed forces and the Kingdom’s revered constitutional monarchy. Both institutions have defended and united Thai people for generations, leaving Thailand as the only nation in Southeast Asia never colonized by European powers.
It is through the NED and its various subsidiaries including the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Freedom House, and adjacent organizations like USAID and even private sector foundations like Open Society, that the US conducts its political interference in Thailand.
Many of these interests are involved in annual confabs like the Oslo Freedom Forum which even the BBC has reported trains opposition groups from around the world to then return home and oust their respective governments. This includes opposition groups backed by the US protesting in Hong Kong,China until 2020.
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit has been invited as a speaker to the Oslo Freedom Forum and has repeatedly attended the forum including the most recent one in 2022. While still serving as a member of the Thai parliament, he met with the leader of the US-sponsored Hong Kong protests, Joshua Wong, creating a diplomatic row between Thailand and China at the time, the South China Morning Post would report.
The Oslo Freedom Forum, according to its own website (archived), is funded by the Norwegian government, US corporations including Amazon and Jigsaw (Google), as well as The Freedom Fund which is in turn funded by the US State Department.
Thaksin Shinawatra and Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, both billionaires, are in no need of NED money. Instead, the US through the NED supports their collective political networks by mobilizing organizations that are receiving US government money. The NED targets all aspects of Thai society, from media and politics, to education and culture, overwriting centuries of Thai tradition with Western-style “values” aimed at multiplying the number and magnitude of fault lines society can be divided along.
The NED on its own official website admits that it is “funded largely by the U.S. Congress,” and that it is overseen by both the US Congress and the US State Department, meaning the organizations in Thailand receiving NED money are in fact funded by the US government itself through the NED.
The NED’s webpage for programs it is funding in Thailand omits many of the names of groups receiving money, specifically to obfuscate Washington’s role in sponsoring opposition groups ahead of upcoming elections involved in violent protests that have been ongoing since the last Thai general election in 2019.
Media organizations promoting ongoing anti-government protests in Thailand include Prachatai, Benar News (funded via the US Agency for Global Media), and Isaan Record.
Organizations involved directly in the protests themselves include Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) whose lawyer Anon Nampha actually leads protests. TLHR founder Sirikan Charoensiri traveled to Washington D.C. to receive the 2018 “International Women of Courage Award” from US First Lady Melania Trump.
There is also iLaw, which organized a petition to rewrite Thailand’s constitution and was present at protest sites collecting signatures.
The Nation in 2020 in an article titled, “iLaw launches petition for charter rewrite,” would report:
The Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw), a human rights NGO, has launched a campaign seeking signatures from 50,000 voters to sponsor a motion for a Constitution rewrite. The petition to redraft the charter will open for signatures from 1pm to 4pm on Friday (August 7) at Thammasat University’s Tha Phra Chan Campus. Activities on the day will include a lecture on the importance of amending the Constitution by the director of iLaw Jon Ungphakorn, former senator.
No mention was made of iLaw’s US government funding or the implications of a US government-funded organization attempting to rewrite the constitution of another sovereign nation.
Both TLHR and iLaw, along with dedicated media organizations like Prachatai, Benar News, and Isaan Record funded by the US government, as well as the Western media operating in Thailand, use their substantial social media presence to promote protest events and disseminate anti-government narratives online.
As elections approach, these same organizations and platforms will use their US and European government funding to influence the Thai public in favor of parties backed by the West.
What Comes Next?
Regardless of how the Thai elections play out, the political crisis is almost certain to continue.
If US-backed parties do not get into power, US-funded organizations will once again take to the streets and attempt to overturn the election results through violent coercion. If the US cannot co-opt Thailand by installing a client regime into power, it will settle for simply destabilizing Thailand politically and economically to minimize its ability to serve as a constructive partner of China and the rest of the region.
If US-backed opposition groups come to power, they will immediately begin attempting to run Thailand into the ground politically and economically, making good on promises to “rebalance” away from China, Thailand’s largest trade partner, and transform Thailand into a proxy of Washington used as a battering ram against China. Just as Ukraine did from 2014 onward, isolating itself from Russia, its most important economic and industrial partner, or Taiwan from 2016 onward isolating itself from the rest of China at the expensive of economic development and growth, there will be real and long-lasting impacts of irrationally turning away from China, toward the US which has no alternatives on offer.
Joint Thai-Chinese infrastructure projects will face cancellation, not only setting back Thailand’s development by years, but negatively impacting the entire region. China’s high-speed rail network when completed will allow more businesses region wide to send larger volumes and a greater variety of goods to and from China while bringing in larger numbers of Chinese tourists than ever.
If US proxies take office in Thailand, the US will be better able to pressure ASEAN as a whole to decisively side with Washington on its efforts to transform maritime disputes in the South China Sea into a regional confrontation, implement regime change in Myanmar, and even move the region closer to US-led militarization ahead of a US conflict with China itself.
As was the case from 2011-2014 when Thaksin Shinawatra’s political party finally retook power with his own sister serving in his place as prime minister, protests to oust the US client regime in the form of a “counter-color revolution” will not likely take to the streets until considerable damage has been done to the country over the course of a year or more.
By 2014, while ultimately the Shinawatras’ government was removed from power, crucial reforms including laws addressing extensive US and European interference in Thailand’s internal political affairs failed to materialize, setting the stage for a repeat performance this year.
Only time will tell if Thailand can wait out Washington’s fading influence in the region as China rises, weather the damage done if US-backed opposition groups come to power, and then over the course of several years finally finish reforms that truly and fully secure Thailand’s political independence. Then and only then can Thailand and other nations in Asia serve as stable foundations to build Asia’s collective future upon. Until then, Thailand and the region as a whole still face the prospect of instability, economic ruin, and even violence.
Brian Berletic is a Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.