Opinion: Thai Protesters Do Not Need US Support

In late October, at the height of Thailand’s pro-democracy protests, a small pro-royalist protest took place at the US embassy.

Led by singer-actress Haruthai ‘Au’ Muangboonsri, the pro-royalists held signs that read “Stop hybrid war in Thailand” and “Mr DeSombre [the U.S. ambassador to Thailand]! Your job in Hong Kong was good, but it doesn’t work for Thailand.”

Claims of U.S. ‘foreign interference’ have been rife among conservatives, pro-royalists and CCP supporters. 

To them, then, it might have been unsurprising that the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee urged the Thai government to protect and uphold democratic values in a resolution tabled on December 3rd.

As reported by the Thai Enquirer, a group of seven Democrat US senators, led by Senators Bob Menendez and Dick Durbin, introduced a resolution to urge the Thai government “to protect and uphold democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.”

The resolution is supported by Thai-American senator Tammy Duckworth.

While Senator Duckworth’s interest in the resolution may be clear, Senators Menendez and Durbin have a less straightforward connection to Thailand’s pro-democracy cause. But as early as September 16, Senator Menendez was tweeting in support of youth protesters, writing: “The U.S.-Thai alliance is built on shared values and a commitment to democracy. As peaceful activists and protestors gather this weekend, I call on the Thai government to respect the right to peaceful protest, assembly and speech.” On October 16, following the Thai government’s use of water cannons on protesters, Menendez called the government’s reaction “deeply troubling” and “draconian.”

In turn, Senator Durbin has been a longtime supporter of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, and a key sponsor of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act that passed the US Senate in November 2019. “We must show our unequivocal support for the democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong,” Durbin wrote at the time.

An aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee anonymously said of Durbin’s support: “There is a linkage [between his advocacy for Thailand and Hong Kong]. No matter where you live, no matter whether you are a treaty ally or not, the United States supports human rights. #MilkTeaAlliance.”

Bunkueanun “Francis” Paothon, leader of the Anti ‘One China Policy’ Thailand group (a core proponent of the Milk Tea Alliance) recognizes the danger and promise of US support. Francis is charged with a violation of Section 110 of the Criminal Code for his involvement in the pro-democracy protests, and spoke about the US Senate Resolution as he waited for the announcement of his criminal charges at Dusit Police Station.

Despite criticism regarding foreign interference, Francis felt confident that this “symbolic” move is the way forward.

Yet, despite the Senators’ good intentions, pro-royalists are paradoxically correct about one thing: America’s foreign interference has in the past done Thailand little good. The Resolution outlines the long history of US-Thai relations – one which Senator Menendez continually highlights in his tweets supporting Thai protesters – but fails to mention how much US support has entrenched the current establishment that protesters are fighting to dislodge.

As Sebastian Strangio writes for The Diplomat, “It seems to overreach slightly on its claim that the U.S. and Thailand are united by “shared values of democracy, rule of law, universal human rights, and a free market.””

Rather, throughout most of the history of US-Thai relations, Thailand was an anti-communist stronghold in an increasingly red Southeast Asia. Its democracy – or lack thereof – did not matter.

This is evidenced most clearly in the CIA’s open support for dictator Sarit Thanarat, the man who wielded Article 17 of the B.E. 2502 Thai Constitution – known as “M17” – as the legal basis for abolishing parliament, censoring newspapers, prohibiting political parties and imprisoning and often executing suspected ‘communists’.

Sarit was empowered from army chief to coup leader by US aid, as a 1957 CIA document acknowledges, and Western support for his regime continued under US auspices. In 1959, the New York times reported without irony (and much euphemism): “Many Western Diplomats and observers are encouraged by political and economic developments that have taken place in Thailand since Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat’s ‘revolution’ on October 20.”

Undated picture of Field Marshal Sarit Dhanarajata (Sarit Thanarat 1908-1963) who led a coup in 1957 and took power in Thailand. He served as Prime Minister until his death in 1963. (Photo by AFP)

To substantiate the article, the Times quoted one anonymous ‘Westerner.’ A ‘revolution’ indeed.

In his obituary, the New York Times called him “a strong friend of the United States and an implacable foe of Communism.” This designation was also extended to Thanom Kittikachon, the dictator whose return from exile sparked the October 1976 Massacre and whose rule was widely protested, just as students today protest Prayudh Chan O-Cha’s impositions on democracy.

In an unimaginably laudatory 1965 article called “Smiling Through With Thanom of Thailand,” the American newspaper highlights the dictator’s honesty, immaculate dress and – more than anything – his smile. Six years later, he would execute another coup against his own government, to dissolve parliament and appoint himself Chairman of the National Executive Council. 

The same support and fawning admiration was not extended to coup-maker Plaek Pibulsongkram, Sarit’s predecessor, primarily because the US did not feel like he was sufficiently successful in fighting communism. The popularity of Sarit’s coup lay in the fact that Pibul was seen as unable to deal with problems of “inflation, corruption and communism.” 

Beyond US support for Thailand’s dictators is the well-documented US support for Thailand’s monarchy, which Assistant Professor Phimmasone Michael Rattanasengchanh calls “the unshakeable Military-King Alliance.”

More so than Thanom, it was this Alliance that succeeded the First Triumvirate consisting of Sarit, General Phao and Premier Pibul. As Rattanasaengchanh argues, “Sarit’s coup was the catalyst that formed the alliance [between military and monarchy] by turning to the monarchy for support, but U.S. aid enabled the relationship to progress well after Sarit’s death in 1963.” From 1957 to the present, Rattanasaengchanh claims that this alliance has influenced and controlled Thai politics.

In many ways, today’s protesters confront direct legacies of US intervention: the military-monarchy alliance, and the entrenchment of dictators who have normalized themselves through false electoral support. Although US priorities have shifted since the end of the Cold War, the infrastructure it built within Thai politics has not.

US Senators Menendez, Durbin and Duckworth likely will not acknowledge this legacy of the US-Thai alliance. As such, they likely will not acknowledge, as Strangio does in the aforementioned article, that the Resolution will stoke more tensions in Bangkok than they would assuage. If passed, it would provide the pro-royalist establishment with a real basis for currently baseless claims of foreign interference. It could rob the pro-democracy movement of some of the homegrown legitimacy and schoolgirl-inspired purity that currently energizes its wide support base.

Ultimately, the Thai pro-democracy movement is better off without US support. It has been hurt enough by US ‘support’ in Thailand’s past.  


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