Last week, parliament gathered to debate and vote on various proposals related to constitutional reform. Nothing out of the ordinary transpired, except for one thing: the sheer amount of airtime dedicated not to the merits of the proposals themselves, but rather for scrutiny of the Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw) organization.
That iLaw would come under the spotlight is understandable: the progressive NGO was at the forefront of gathering signatures for a proposal of amendments that they had drafted, and that was then under consideration by parliament. But the reasoning that many MPs and senators deployed to explain their withholding of support from iLaw’s draft was interesting. Paiboon Nititawan, Palang Pracharath deputy leader, declared: “I will…reject the iLaw draft, because it goes against the royal institution and is backed by foreign money!”
The issue of shadowy foreigners seeking to intervene in domestic Thai politics has been a strong undercurrent in Thai politics for the better part of the decade, and so perhaps it was only a matter of time before it was brought up as a major discussion point in the legislature itself. Given the recent prominence of this topic, let’s spend a little bit of time dissecting it. Is the Thai state being undermined from outside?
At first glance, there does seem to be an inexorable logical flow to this argument. iLaw, after all, states very clearly their foreign sources of funding on their website, with donors including the National Endowment for Democracy (an arm of the US government), and the Open Society Foundation (headed by the international bogeyman George Soros). In a world where there is no free money, surely these organizations have an agenda? And with iLaw trying to reform our system of governance, does this not indicate a clear attempt from the West to disrupt Thailand’s traditional culture of governance?
To many, this idea takes on further momentum when the geopolitical realities are considered. This government, they say, has shunned the West and moved further towards China. Yet Thailand, a traditionally US ally with a strategic central location in mainland Southeast Asia, is badly needed for any American campaign to encircle China to succeed. Western powers, therefore, badly desire regime change in Thailand, to ensure a more pliable supplicant who will lean towards Washington, not Beijing.
And when one enters this frame, all the evidence comes together. Why else would foreigners be funding these organizations? Why else do protest leaders have photos with US ambassadors? Why does BBC Thai have such a clear left slant?
These are arguments peddled not only by obscure conspiracy theorists on Facebook but also by prominent politicians. Sondhi Limthongkul, the former yellow shirt leader who now hosts a popular talk show on YouTube, is a big proponent of the theory of Western influence: recent episodes of ‘Sondhi Talk’ include “The West Ganging Up on Thailand,” “Toppling the Monarchy with British Money,” and “America, China and Strategic Encirclement.”
Yet, under some scrutiny, this theory begins to fall apart.
The underlying theme of all this is that this attempt to subvert the Thai state must be taking place in the shadows, part of an undercover attempt to destabilize the country. But there is nothing shadowy or secretive about the role of agencies such as the US National Endowment for Democracy. A visit to the NED’s website, ned.org, will take you to a list of organizations in various countries around the world that are receiving NED sponsorship. Indeed, there is a list of the sums given to different organizations in Thailand: it is all in the open.
Examining this list makes it evident that the Americans must not be taking this efforts at regime change very seriously. iLaw received a grand total of $48,000 in 2019. If less than one and a half million baht from the NED is enough to push through a change in government in Thailand, that says more about the government’s fragility than it does about the NED.
Okay, the counterargument may go, but that’s simply the information being made public. There’s surely things happening behind the scenes that we don’t know about? Perhaps — absence of evidence is not evidence of absence — but let’s think through this carefully.
Firstly, saying the US is attempting regime change in Thailand in 2020 means that we are assuming the Trump administration is leading these efforts. President Donald Trump’s White House leaks more than a burst pipe: it’s hard to imagine that an organized effort to undermine the government of America’s oldest ally in Asia would have escaped detection by the American media all this time.
And leave aside the leaks. The very idea that the Trump administration, who hasn’t even been able to engineer a coup in the US itself, is capable of effecting a sophisticated behind-the-scenes effort to turf out the current Thai government is rather incredible. The Trump legacy in Southeast Asia is more of disinterest and disengagement rather than heightened interventionism.
Secondly, who, exactly, are these Western powers seeking to bring to power instead? Everyone with a passing knowledge of modern Thai politics would know that in a fair election, a Pheu Thai prime ministerial candidate would likely win. Yet the notion that the man behind the party, Thaksin Shinawatra, would be a Western stooge is simply not borne out by the facts.
As Sebastian Strangio documented in his book In the Dragon’s Shadow, Thaksin was a key proponent of deepening relations with China, choosing the country for his first foreign visit, negotiating a free trade agreement and beginning joint military exercises. For the United States to bring to power the ex-prime minister who had called Thailand Beijing’s “closest” friend would be strange indeed.
We can, of course, debate the efficacy of American democracy promotion, and whether or not it is an infringement of sovereignty. But ultimately, this notion of protestors and NGOs being backed by imperialists from foreign countries does not stand up to scrutiny — and the key proponents of these claims are yet unable to produce any evidence beyond what is already publicly available.
And, even if the US or some other great power is actively attempting to subvert Thai politics, surely their success in convincing such a large segment of the population to turn against the government must mean there’s already discontent bubbling? How could they succeed otherwise? Would it not be better to fight such “interference” by winning the hearts and minds at home?
Instead of engaging with the argument and confronting Thailand’s ills head-on, claims of foreign interference simply provide an excuse for those against reform to avoid the debate. Thailand deserves better than this, whether in parliament or in public discussion elsewhere.