Two women wearing protective facemasks stand inside a shopping mall in Bangkok on February 5, 2020. Photo: AFP/Vivek Prakash

BANGKOK – A vicious, hilarious and highly political war has erupted on social media between Thailand’s satirical dissidents and China’s outraged nationalists, prompting the Chinese embassy in Bangkok to complain in vain.

The spat erupted after Thai internet model Weeraya Sukaram, more widely known by her “Nnevvy” social media moniker, retweeted a post that may have suggested the coronavirus originated in a Chinese laboratory and that Beijing silenced investigators and whistleblowers.

Chinese netizens viciously countered the widespread claim and later railed on the Thai starlet’s suggestion in an Instagram post that did not describe Taiwan as part of China. Beijing considers the island nation a renegade province.  

Nnevvy-generated hashtags generated over two million tweets, according to news reports. Chinese critics later called for a ban on Weeraya’s TV star boyfriend, Vachirawit Chivaaree, for liking a post that identified Hong Kong as a country rather than a Chinese autonomous territory.  

Reuters reported related hashtags on the boycott call had at one point over 4.6 billion views on the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo.

Screen grab of Thai starlet Weeraya Sukaram and Chinese social media comments. Photo: Twitter

The Internet battle has attracted other big personalities in Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere, mostly cheering Thailand’s mischievous jokes, insults, political stabs, and pop art memes against China.

“Perhaps we can build a new kind of pan-Asian solidarity that opposes all forms of authoritarianism!” wrote Hong Kong’s famous pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong. Wong urged people to “stand with our freedom-loving Thai friends.”

That prompted the Chinese embassy to express it’s displeasure over the spiraling virtual spat.

“The recent online noises only reflect bias and ignorance of its maker(s), which does not in any way represent the standing stance of the Thai government nor the mainstream public opinion of the Thai People,” a Chinese embassy spokesperson posted on its official Facebook page.

“The scheme by some particular people, to manipulate the issue for the purpose of inflaming and sabotaging the friendship between the Chinese and Thai people, will not succeed,” the the embassy’s April 14 statement said in English, Thai and Chinese.

As of April 16, the Chinese embassy’s statement had attracted more than 17,000 responses on Facebook and countless more on Twitter.

Beyond the hatred spewed by trolls on all sides, the most imaginative online chatter has been about attempts to promote democracy in Thailand and China.

Thais ingeniously absorbed the punches of pro-Beijing defenders, who thought they were winning by mocking Thailand’s repressive political system.

Chinese rants against Bangkok’s politics unveiled the Thais’ strongest weapons: self-deprecating jokes. Thais agreed with Chinese badmouthing Bangkok’s lackluster leaders, which ultimately seemed to defeat the Chinese trolls.

Chinese tourists watch a traditional Thai dance at Erawan shrine, a popular spiritual landmark in Bangkok, January 27, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Mladen Antonov

“Looking back, Thailand doesn’t seem to have any great history,” someone identified as Daheee tweeted, implying China’s ancient civilization was somehow more profound.

“Yeah we dont have history and we dont have any future too,” GyGyfightCovid responded, defusing the Chinese comparison by agreeing that Thailand’s military coups and current lopsided elected government were less than ideal.

More pointedly, Thai memes jokingly quoted the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) saying: “Your Government Sucks.”  An anonymous Thai cheerleader responded: “SAY IT LOUDER.”

Nationalistic Asian netizens often battle it out online, including the insanely twisted clashes between Hindus in India and Muslims in Pakistan.

More obscurely, Lao-American males sometimes taunt and denounce Caucasians who lust for females from Laos and elsewhere in eastern Asia.

But when the Thai-China online feud evolved into Thais describing Taiwan and Hong Kong as countries, instead of united with China, the verbal abuse by Chinese and Thais went ballistic.

“Both sides attacked each other’s governments, political systems, music, hygiene, looks, races, foods, ethnicities, freedom — or lack thereof — you name it,” Thailand-based columnist Voranai Vanijaka reported.

“Of the over two million tweets on #nnevvy, the majority are riddled with anger, but look carefully and you will find voices from both sides that speak out for freedom,” Voranai said.

Some see a passing resemblance between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and cuddly cartoon character Winnie the Pooh. Photo: Twitter

One popular response, in English and Chinese, pointed to China’s lack of free speech by listing politicized words that Beijing regularly censors online:

“Free Tibet, The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, The Tiananmen Square Massacre, The Anti-Rightist Struggle, The Great Leap Forward, The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Human Rights, Democratization, Freedom, Independence, Multi-party system, Taiwan Formosa, Republic of China, Tibet, Dalai Lama, Falun Dafa, The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo, Winnie the Pooh.”

That last phrase on the long list confused Akun Kebrayoran Pop who asked: “Winnie the Pooh?”

Yenni Kwok clarified: “Winnie the Pooh is the nickname for [China’s leader] Xi Jinping”

Akun responded: “And the government recognize that to the point they ban that word?”

One Thai post tried to clarify the root of the problem and said the quotes that sparked the war of words “didn’t actually say that Covid is from Wuhan’s lab nor that China is intentionally make the virus.

“The tweet just pointed out how many kinds of viruses are kept in Wuhan’s lab, and just raised a question that before blaming US’s for the covid, they should allow Wuhan’s lab to be investigated so the tweet hasn’t concluded anything yet.”

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.

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