On October 21, an editorial in the Chinese Communist Party paper Global Times claimed the West was behind ongoing student-led protests in Thailand.
Yu Qun, who is a deputy director at China’s National University of Defense Technology, said anti-government forces are seeking to “bring in pro-West political proxies to rule the country with Western-styled democracy” via a “color revolution.”
“It is unclear whether the Thai young generation, who are currently being used as cannon fodder by the US and its proxies, actually understand that a color revolution is not as beautiful nor peaceful as portrayed.”
This unfounded conspiracy theory has also been advanced by some Thai royalists, who oppose protesters’ calls for reforms to the country’s monarchy.
A small group of royalists staged a counter-protest on October 26 outside the U.S. embassy in Bangkok calling for it to “stop hybrid war in Thailand.”
Hardline royalists have also blamed George Soros, the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and even Netflix for the protests against the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
The U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Bangkok had earlier released a statement denying any such claims, saying “the United States government is not funding or otherwise providing support to any of the protests in Thailand.”
In the editorial, Yu falsely characterizes the largely peaceful protests as “riots,” saying they “resemble the 2019 Hong Kong turmoil.” He specifically notes that Hong Kong student and politician Joshua Wong has “publicly supported Thai anti-government protests.”
Wong’s support for the Thai protests, however, is unsurprising, given that online activists in Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan have been united around pro-democracy aspirations in the what’s called the “Milk Tea Alliance” (after a popular drink).
Wasana Wongsurawat, an expert on China at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, told Reuters in April that “anti-Beijing sentiment has become a part of Thais’ fight against authoritarianism.”
That sentiment was mirrored by Thai protest leader Parit Chiwarak, who recently told The Atlantic magazine: “Everyone [in the alliance] is the victim of China and its authoritarianism.”
Yu’s editorial argues that the protests are “mainly made up by [sic] young people,” adding that because they are “well-organized,” there is “no doubt that they are funded by some individuals or organizations behind the scenes.”
Of course, there is no evidence that university students are incapable of organizing protests on their own.
Yu claimed that protesters at an October 16 rally, where police deployed water cannons, “were well furnished with protective gear such as helmets, goggles and umbrellas,” adding: “[I]t is obviously difficult for common students to raise funds for such gear.”
The notion that urban university students can’t afford umbrellas during the height of Thailand’s rain season is debatable. That doesn’t mean the protesters aren’t getting financial help, but Voranai Vanijaka, founder and editor-in-chief at the Thai online news portal Thisrupt, told Polygraph.info that it’s homegrown.
“The funding [pro-democracy protesters] get are from donations from Thai people. That includes helmets and other gear. For example, the food [is] provided by the actress Sai Chareonpura. Barricades are makeshift. Mobile toilets and [other] gear are all [acquired] through donation money,” he said.
Polygraph.info spoke to a 32-year-old Bangkok resident and urban professional who had donated money to the protest movement and asked for anonymity for fear of reprisal. The individual had become aware of a fundraising campaign via Twitter that was organized by fans of Korean pop music (K-Pop).
“I got the bank account [information] from Twitter. The group [I donated to] got 700,000 baht ($22,559 dollars). There are many K-Pop fans doing like this.”
A screen shot provided by the donor was dated October 17, one day after the police crackdown at the rally.
Other media reports also have corroborated that K-pop fans helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Thai protesters.
Yu asserts that “unidentified Westerners” have “openly instructed students to set up stages and barricades.” However, Voronai argues the “unidentified foreigners” are simply “residents living here [who] sympathize with the cause.”
One such foreigner recently made headlines for critical social media posts that sparked a deportation controversy. No evidence has been presented that such foreigners have played any organizational role in the protests.
Yu also posits that “a very professional camera team hiding in the crowd to capture ‘touching’ scenes,” as well as police attacks on unarmed protesters, has incited people to hate the government in a “clear recruitment campaign.”
The protests have been attended by domestic and international media, and scenes of unarmed protesters being attacked by police have generated public sympathy. But there is no evidence this is a deliberate recruitment strategy.
Voronai argues the decision by Chinese state media to promote a conspiracy theory fits with its regional ambitions.
“[The] Chinese are betting on the present regime in their geopolitical expansion into Southeast Asia. The protesters are pro-democracy, which they see as undermining their cause. It’s better to have a [Prime Minister] Prayut & Co running things. [It’s] easier to align interests,” he told Polygraph.info.
The first wave of the 2020 protest movement began after the opposition Future Forward Party was dissolved on February 21. The party, which called for democratic reforms and curbs on the military, broadly appealed to young voters.
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a halt of political activity in Thailand, but in July student activists began organizing large-scale street demonstrations despite an ongoing state of emergency.
The protesters have demanded Prayut Chan-o-cha's resignation, amendments to the 2017 constitution and the reform of the monarchy.
The 2017 constitution was drafted under the Prayut-led military junta, which came to power following a coup in 2014. The country nominally returned to civilian rule following 2019 elections, with Prayut continuing on at the helm.
The national charter has long been a sticking point for pro-democracy activists. Under it, Thailand has a 750-member bicameral parliament, with 500 elected members of the House of Representatives and 250 senators handpicked by the Royal Thai military, who also have a say in choosing the prime minister.
The constitution binds elected governments to follow the 20-year economic roadmap drafted by the military junta, while also expanding the powers of the king.
Since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932, Thailand has experienced 19 military coups and just as many constitutions.