It is rare, under Thailand’s oppressive military regime, for political feathers to be publicly ruffled. Campaigning is banned and dissidents and activists are regularly thrown in jail.
But Thai newspapers were abuzz last week with talk of democracy and political accountability thanks mainly to one man, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
Charismatic and wealthy, Thanathorn is the co-founder of Future Forward, which was formed in March after the electoral commission allowed new parties to register for the first time in five years, with a view to a possible election in 2019.
Others parties also sprang up in March but few have had the immediate impact of Future Forward, with its progressive agenda and billionaire auto tycoon at the helm.
In fact, the party captured so much public attention that the ruling military junta quickly pressed the electoral commission to void its registration.
Thanathorn, 39, who has drawn comparison to the French president, Emmanuel Macron, said the decision to step aside from the business world and commit himself full-time to politics in such an oppressive climate was one he had not taken lightly.
“I know that by starting this party, it seriously means I might go to jail tomorrow,” he said. “But there’s no other way we can make a positive change in this country until there is a new political party of the people.”
Thailand has been run by the army since Prayuth Chan-ocha, a general, seized power in bloodless coup in 2014. Prayuth’s junta enjoyed considerable public support when it took power, but criticism of its often repressive policies and lack of transparency has grown.
Prayuth has promised elections next year, though he has made similar promises several times previously and then delayed the balloting.
Political parties may have been tentatively allowed but campaigning is still banned, and Thanathorn was cautious about discussing his intentions.
“I have to be careful about my words because the situation here is …” he began, before trailing off. After a pause, he added: “I’ll try to be as honest as possible.”
His hesitancy was not unfounded: 79 people have been arrested in the past month for peacefully demonstrating in favour of elections. Thanathorn said he had received multiple death threats.
Until recently, politics was only a sideline for Thanathorn, who made his fortune as executive vice-president and director of the Thai Summit group, which makes car parts.
But in December he met up with Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, a popular legal scholar and one of Thailand’s most outspoken pro-democracy voices, to discuss forming the political party they had felt for years had been absent from Thai politics. By January, it was decided.
“I never, ever thought I would be a politician,” said Thanathorn. “I am happy with my life, I’ve got a good balance work-life and spiritually I am quite happy. The problem is that there are millions of people in Thailand being oppressed, and I realised I just cannot live with that.”
Duncan McCargo, an expert on Thai politics, expressed doubt that Future Forward could have any substantial impact.
But he said: “The excitement, which might be bogus excitement, around the Future Forward party is partly because people haven’t had anything to get their teeth into for so long.
“There’s definitely a change of mood on the ground, and where Future Forward could succeed is with young voters who have felt alienated from politics.”
Thanathorn’s idealism may have made him an appealing political prospect to an increasingly restless young, educated, urban electorate, but many Thais are sceptical.
There are grave doubts that he could win over voters in the rural north, and his lack of experience would be no match for the military or Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister deposed in another military coup in 2006, who appears to be plotting a return in 2019.
In order to make any impact in Thai politics, placating the military has always been seen as essential – there have been 19 military coups or coup attempts in Thailand since 1932 – but Thanathorn has no intention of welding his party to its influence.
“Never again,” he said bluntly. “We want to champion the reduction of the military power in Thai politics …You don’t have to control conflict with violence – you don’t have to take control from the electorate to solve conflict.”
Among other things, Future Forward wants to rewrite the constitution, tackle police corruption and embark on a massive decentralisation campaign – a wildly ambitious plan for a country where democracy is absent on a national level, let alone a local one.
Thanathorn is under no illusions about the system his party is operating in, and he has very little confidence that the 2019 election will even happen – election plans have already been pushed back multiple times.
Future Forward’s ambitions were focused far beyond that, he said. “Will the next election bring about democracy in Thailand? My answer there is firmly no.
“The laws, the constitution, are incompatible with democracy, the justice system is not compatible with democracy.
So that’s why when we talk about bringing democracy back into this society, we are talking about something more long term, maybe five years, 10 years, maybe even 20 years. It is a long-term war and the next election will just be the first battle.”
Feel free to comment on story below