Caption: Sumet ‘Men’ Trakulwunnu at a pro-monarchy protest. Source: Prachatai

Worrying return of Thai right-wing thugs

In Klaeng district, Rayong Province, a group of right-wing thugs went to a man’s home. The group call themselves the Ong Dam Warriors and they said this was their first “discipline operation” to end criticism of the Thai monarchy. They may claim to be peaceful, but one cannot forget too easily. The group has a long history in right-wing pro-monarchy campaigns that have included threats, assaults, and even death.

The Ong Dam Warriors say that one day they saw a Facebook post defaming the monarchy from Tum (alias). As staunch royalists, they felt uneasy. Taking matters into their own hands, they sent a letter to Tum’s community leader asking for permission to use “social measures”.    

With facilitation from the community leader, Tum was taken to meet 4-5 men in black uniform on 17 April. The Ong Dam Warriors asked him to confess to his action and make a public apology. Then they took Tum to prostate himself in front of a portrait of King Vajiralongkorn to ask for royal forgiveness and make an oath not to do it again.

Caption: Ong Dam Warriors take Tum to prostate himself in front of a portrait of King Vajiralongkorn.
Source: Ong Dam Warriors' FB page

After they completed the operation, they posted everything they did on Facebook with Tum’s face censored. The post quickly went viral on social media, leading to support and criticism.

“Anyone else who has threatening and abusive behaviour like this, you may be the target for one of our next jobs. Better hide and look through the peephole of your door at home,” says an Ong Dam Warrior in the last paragraph of the FB post.

Ong Dam was a nickname of King Naresuan, who waged a war for Ayutthaya’s independence against Burmese rule in the region which later became Thailand. According to the mainstream historical narrative, King Naresuan was a national war hero. However, the Ong Dam Warrior’s Facebook page says they reject all forms of violence. Their mission is to protect “nation, religions, and the king” by using a nonviolent approach.

They also say in their ‘about us’ section that their purpose is to protect the monarchy only and they had no political affiliation. However, apart from some posts to promote the royal family or the military or posts shared from the right-wing media outlet Top News, the Ong Dam Warrior’s Facebook page also shows pro-government propaganda on a regular basis.

Caption: Ong Dam Warriors celebrate Songkran on 14 April 2021. Source: Ong Dam Warriors' FB page. 

Face of the leader

The leader of the Ong Dam Warriors is Sumet ‘Men’ Trakulwunnu. Not much is known about personal background, but he had a home in Surat Thani where he once provided shelter for a criminal.

Caption: Sumet ‘Men’ Trakulwunnu at a pro-monarchy protest. Source: Prachatai

After reportedly receiving special training from the “Anonymous Army”, Sumet became a leader of protest guards for the People's Democratic Reform Committee in 2014. Three months before the coup against the Yingluck Shinawatra government in May, Sumet was one of 22 Ong Dam warriors suspected of firing assault rifles at red shirt protesters outside Lak Si’s IT Square shopping mall. The incident led to 1 death and 3 injuries.

The person who was killed, Akaew Sae Liew, 72, was an innocent bystander who sold soft drinks nearby. The only one sentenced to jail was Wiwat Yodprasit known as the popcorn gunman, who was later acquitted on appeal. Although Sumet, as Wiwat’s boss, let him stay at his home to evade arrest, Sumet’s case was dismissed due to lack of evidence.

Sumet returned to the public realm in late 2020 after pro-democracy protests had re-started after a 6-month hiatus since February. As one of the leaders of the Coordination Centre of Vocational Students and People in Defence of the Monarchy, Sumet led a pro-monarchy protest in August last year near to a pro-democracy demonstration on Ratchadamnoen Avenue. He said that they would infiltrate the pro-democracy protest to collect evidence and report to the police any lèse-majesté speech that was detected. His action caused a law professor to provide guidelines to protect protesters’ privacy.  

On another occasion in September 2020, Sumet handed a letter to the then Chief of Royal Thai Police Pol Gen Chakthip Chaijinda calling for bail to be denied to pro-democracy leaders including Anon Nampa, Parit Chiwarak, and Panupong Jadnok. Sumet claimed that these leaders did not comply with the court’s conditions and that the case involved national security, public order and the people’s feelings. When the protest leaders were repeatedly denied bail this year, the Criminal Court actually used a line of argument similar to Sumet’s statement.    

Also in September, Sumet held a protest in front of the US Embassy calling for an end to US involvement in Thailand’s internal affairs and went to Thai Summit Tower calling for Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit to get out of the country, believing that his Progressive Movement was behind the pro-democracy protesters. Apart from this, he made several other attempts to hold pro-monarchy protests near to pro-democracy demonstrations and pressured government politicians to take action against the opposition, who he believed was behind the student protesters.

In March this year, a number of pro-monarchy groups protested together at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre and the Ong Dam Warriors also joined. Only a small number participated in the protest. However, the event led to an incident when two pro-democracy citizens showed the three-finger salute on the skywalk nearby. Angered by this, the protest guards prepared to assault them. Thanks to concerned citizens and plainclothes police, they were taken to safety. It is not known if Sumet was at the protest site.   

Under scrutiny

Now that all pro-democracy protest leaders have been detained and the protests suspended because of the return of Covid-19, Sumet has gone back to his old ways with the Ong Dam Warriors confronting critics of the monarchy in their homes. After the discipline operation against Tum, the group became even more popular on social media, leading to public scrutiny, criticism, and support.

Rangsiman Rome, an MP of the opposition Move Forward party, made a statement against the emerging phenomenon of vigilantes. In his opinion, this behaviour can be prosecuted under Section 309 of the Criminal Code which protects citizens from threats and intimidation. The penalty is up to 7 years in jail and a fine of 140,000 baht. Rangsiman called for the Royal Thai Police to take action to maintain public order.

In a separate case, the Ong Dam Warrior Facebook page also showed a photo of a man in black gear with a heavy weapon. His arm barge showed the logo of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) which operates under the Office of the Prime Minister. The logo raised netizens’ suspicions of government involvement in Ong Dam Warrior operations. However, ISOC denied any involvement in the vigilante group’s operations and said that using their logo without their permission can be punished by up to 1 year in jail and a 2,000 baht fine.

In response, Ong Dam Warriors said it was just a misunderstanding. They never used the government’s logo in any way at all. They said they have their own logo and they use only that. However, it was found that the photo in question was taken down and replaced with a new photo without the logo.

Left: Ong Dam warrior with ISOC's badge (the photo was later deleted from Ong Dam's FB after comment). Right: The Ong Dam Warriors' logo which they claim that they use. 
Source: Matichon Online

One among many

Even though the Ong Dam Warriors have faced scrutiny and criticism from many groups, some still support them, as seen in their page’s comments. Some said they believed it was really a misunderstanding. Some even asked why they did not take a legal approach to enforce the lèse majesté law against pro-democracy dissidents.

According to Section 112, any defamation, insults, or threats against the King, the Queen, the Heir-Apparent or the Regent is punishable with up to 15 years in jail. After Prayut Chan-o-cha announced a resumption in using the lèse majesté law against pro-democracy protesters last year, right-wingers have become more confident and started taking matters into their own hands.

The Ong Dam Warriors is one group among many. The Thailand Help Center for Cyberbullying Victims, for example, misinterprets public criticism of the monarchy as a form of online bullying and provides legal support for ultra-royalists to prosecute lèse majesté cases against dissidents. The group has received overwhelming donations from right-wingers. Some even volunteer to help and are honoured by the page like superhero cartoon characters with help from Photoshop.

Caption: A right-wing volunteer honoured as a superhero character from X-
Men. Source: The Thailand Help Center for Cyberbullying Victims

Given that any person can bring a lèse majesté charge, many are prosecuted without having to involve the authorities. Looking at the endorsement from Thai right-wing supporters, the lèse majesté law and vigilante groups are not going away any time soon. Despite democratic resistance, right-wing groups remain strong. The results are worrying, and fear remains in the air.  

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