Thailand Politics

The billionaire challenging military might

A new progressive party has promised to break the military's grip on power, but can the young billionaire at its helm win the hearts and minds of Thailand's rural majority?

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May 1, 2018
The billionaire challenging military might

This is no country for old gods. The once-popular Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister-successor Yingluck remain in exile, their names tarred with questionable corruption charges. Four years of junta rule have left their networks of Redshirt supporters shattered, their leaders scattered. The new King Maha Vajiralongkorn still skulks in the shadow of his late father, unable or unwilling to reach out to his wary subjects, his shabby reputation shielded only by the Kingdom’s authoritarian lèse-majesté laws.

It was in this twilight of the gods that the young billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit unfurled his bright orange banner in Bangkok’s trendy Chinatown and promised to lead the Thai people out of the endless samsara of coup and counter-coup that has churned the nation for decades.

Geared towards Thailand’s young urban middle class and boasting an inner circle of academics, activists and entrepreneurs, Thanathorn’s Future Forward Party – co-founded with Thammasat University law professor Piyabutr Saengkanokkul – is making a desperate bid for an electorate long fed up with the country’s starkly polarised political class.

Thai academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, who remains in exile in Kyoto on lèse-majesté charges for criticising the ruling junta and its royal backers following the 2014 coup, said the young businessman was a breath of fresh air in an increasingly suffocating political climate.

“Thanathorn represents a new breed of Thai politician and wants to change Thailand by ridding the power of the military from politics,” he said. “The major hurdle will be how to build power bases in the countryside. Thaksin has occupied the north and northeast. So it will be difficult for Thanathorn to compete with the bigger party of Thaksin. Yet Thanathorn could serve as an alternative should Thaksin’s party lack significant votes to form the next government.”

As the executive vice-president and director of major automotive parts maker Thai Summit Group, the 39-year-old scion seems an unlikely adversary of a military that rose to power with the full-throated backing of the Bangkok business elite. Jakrapob Penkair, a prominent Redshirt leader and former spokesman for the Thaksin government driven into exile more than a decade ago, described Thanathorn as a man who saw himself as every inch an idealist.

Thanthorn Juangroongruangkit, the billionaire co-founder of the Future Forward Party

“I think what characterises Thanathorn are two elements,” he said. “The first is that he has always been a [rebel] in his tycoon family. He doesn’t take pride in it, he wants to change it, he wants to deepen it in a way that people can benefit from. The second characterisation is his long-term sponsorship of the Fa Diaw Kan – or ‘Same Sky’ – publishing firm, which has published, I would say, some of the most challenging literature on the monarchy – let’s say on the unspeakable issues of Thailand, not just the monarchy.”

“I think what characterises Thanathorn are two elements,” he said. “The first is that he has always been a [rebel] in his tycoon family.”

Jakrapob Penkair, Redshirt leader

Since launching his party, though, Thanathorn has grown more circumspect. Despite his stridently pro-democratic rhetoric, the young mogul has repeatedly denied that he has any intention of amending the nation’s widely condemned lèse-majesté laws, which forbid any criticism of the monarch. And despite campaigning heavily to change the draconian law as part of the Nitirat group of academics and activists, his co-founder Piyabutr appears largely to have fallen in line. In fact, with the junta’s post-coup ban on political activity still stifling any real political debate – at least until the prospective parties meet with the junta in June – it’s unclear to many what the Future Forward Party stands for at all.

Thai-British academic and political activist Giles Ji Ungpakorn, who fled to the United Kingdom after publicly criticising the palace’s role in the 2006 coup that thrust Thaksin from power, told Southeast Asia Globe that he is wary of Thanathorn’s repeated attempts to distance himself from any discussion of the widening gap between the nation’s rich and poor.

“I haven’t seen any evidence that the people behind this new party are interested in building a mass base, especially among the small farmers, rural poor or the working class,” he said. “There seems to be an attempt to gloss over class issues, which usually means that they want to take a neoliberal conservative position. The good thing about the initiative, however, the first thing that should be said, is that they’ve actually stimulated a discussion on social media and, I think, in wider society, about what kind of politics we want to see. And that’s a good thing. They’ve encouraged younger people to take part in this discussion.”

A supporter of former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra wears a mask reading ‘No Coup’ Photo: Narong Sangnak / EPA-EFE

According to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, associate professor at Chulalongkorn University’s faculty of political science, the Future Forward Party’s strong appeal to the young urban middle class has left the party ill-equipped to build a strong relationship with the rural population who still make up the bulk of Thai voters.

“Thanathorn’s party is new and will take time to set up and mobilise,” he said. “But its most daunting challenge is that this is an urban-based party that appeals to intellectuals and progressives, whereas Thai politics is dominated by local patronage networks in the countryside.”

Ungpakorn said that if Thanathorn wanted to emulate Thaksin’s success, he could not afford to ignore the urban and rural poor that had flocked to the former prime minister in droves.

“If you want to win an election, you need to be offering policies which are in the interests of the vast majority of the electorate – so you need to be talking about living standards of ordinary working people and small farmers, not looking to win over the middle-class vote,” he said. “You should be pitching your policies to ordinary working people – which is exactly what Thaksin did when he first won his election, and that was unprecedented in terms of Thai politics before that.”

A student activist is detained during a silent protest criticising the military-backed constitution Photo: Jorge Silva / Reuters

Nor is it clear whether the young tycoon has the killer instinct to thrive in a political landscape that rewards the ability to mobilise force more than it does coffee-shop sermons on the importance of democracy.

“To me personally, [Thanathorn] is taking quite a great leap forward – something’s missing,” said Redshirt leader Jakrapob. “I’m not saying that he wouldn’t be a success, but what is missing here is what I would call the political process, of blending yourself into the realities of politics, good or bad, with the real passion to get power, to change things the way you want. I’m not sure that they have enough right now, but I sure hope and pray that they will have enough stamina and perseverance to pass the tests which lie ahead.”

Much has changed since the military seized power four years ago. A new military-drafted constitution, approved by a disaffected public in a farcical referendum that allowed no campaigning from the opposing side, has set in place a system that allows the armed forces to appoint the entirety of the 250-strong upper house to oversee whatever parliament the eventual elections bring forth, giving the military the final word on major policy decisions. More worrying for the once-mighty, Shinawatra-led Pheu Thai Party is a military-mandated electoral shift to a new system that would make it difficult for any one party to form a government on its own.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha casting his ballot in the 2016 constitutional referendum Photo: Jorge Silva / Reuters

Ungpakorn said that the electoral process is now heavily stacked in favour of a military clique that knows only too well that political power flows from the barrel of a gun – a poor battleground for the fate of the nation.

“The military has designed the electoral process now so that it will be impossible for a political party who wants to reduce the power of the military to actually win a majority in parliament,” he said. “So the constitution needs to be changed. The problem is that were a political party to win a majority in parliament, just because they raise their hands, the power of the military doesn’t just disappear – because the power of the military is extra-parliamentary. And therefore you need to challenge it by extra-parliamentary movements in a democratic fashion – social movements are part of the democratic process.”

With neither the Pheu Thai Party nor the Democrat Party likely to secure a majority under the new model, and Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva slamming the door on any chance of a coalition with his former rivals, both parties will have to fight hard to cobble together a motley mix of minor parties to inch them into a tenuous government.

For political science professor Thitinan, though, the position of the military in the eyes of the Thai public is not as secure as it seems. After years of watching well-placed generals such as the now-infamous defence minister Prawit Wongsuwan enrich themselves at the expense of the people, a clean candidate such as Thanathorn may just be able to fill the credibility gap left by the Shinawatra dynasty, whose very name has become tarnished by repeated corruption charges.

“To reduce military influence in politics, elected politicians and political parties have to perform better on policy and on anti-graft,” Thitinan said. “People were fed up with politicians in the past, but now they are also tired of the generals who have overstayed their welcome…Ultimately, this military-conspired constitution will have to be revamped or rewritten to come up with more balanced rules to underpin any lasting democratic system that can emerge in Thailand.”

With the military still quite literally calling the shots, though, a wary partnership between an elected government and an entrenched military such as the situation plaguing Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi may be closer to the mark.

“The next elections are not to provide Thailand with the solution – they are to provide Thailand with a board of directors to supervise Thailand’s transition to [adapt to] global changes,” Jakrapob said. “The elections are not going to solve the issues or have people cared for in the way that they should have been. But they will select a few lucky ones who will be the so-called board of directors of the new Thailand, and they would have to fight it out over what the future of Thailand will be.”

With handpicked Pheu Thai heavyweight Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan apparently set on reaching an accommodation with the entrenched armed forces, the chance that the party that once mobilised tens of thousands of Thais to protest the military’s might will take the fight for Thailand’s future back to the streets seems remote.

“The Thai populace will have to express more courage in coming out to support those people.”

Pavin Chachavalpongpun

“Thaksin knows that with the Pheu Thai Party contesting in this election, no matter how euphoric it seemed at the opening of the party, they’re not going to run Thailand,” Jakrapob said. “We are going to just be there as a bargaining power in the hopes that we would present something substantial, that we believed in. But it wouldn’t be just one goal, it would be stepping stones.”

It is becoming increasingly clear that the Thai political class lacks both the means and, more worryingly, the motivation to wrest the reins of power from the military. But with Bangkok once again witnessing a smattering of student protests crying out for the long-promised elections in the lead-up to this month’s four-year anniversary of the coup, the possibility that the mass protests that have broken the power of past dictators will return to the streets of the capital no longer seems as distant as it once did. But as Thanathorn may find in his bid for the hearts and minds of the Thai people, it is not a struggle that can be won without reaching out to the working men and women who for years have seen little worth fighting for in their leaders.

“The Thai mass population has been politically passive, partly due to the existence of a culture of impunity,” said the exiled Pavin. “The state has the licence to kill protesters, and nobody has been brought to justice. In the past few months, we have seen sporadic protests led by students and intellectuals. But this is not enough. The Thai populace will have to express more courage in coming out to support those people.”

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