Will an elec­tion fea­tur­ing fresh po­lit­i­cal par­ties make way for change in Thai­land?

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - BY PAUL MIL­LAR

Four years since the Thai armed forces seized power, the rul­ing junta has ce­mented its role in the na­tion’s po­larised po­lit­i­cal scene through a hand­crafted con­sti­tu­tion. 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?

“I haven’t seen any ev­i­dence that the peo­ple be­hind this new party are in­ter­ested in build­ing a mass base, es­pe­cially among the ru­ral poor or the work­ing class”

his is no coun­try for old gods. The on­ce­pop­u­lar Thaksin Shi­nawa­tra and his sis­ter­suc­ces­sor 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

“Thanathorn rep­re­sents a new breed of Thai politi­cian and wants to change Thai­land by rid­ding the power of the military from pol­i­tics”

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.

“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.”

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.”

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.”

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 mil­i­tary­drafted 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 on­cemighty, Shi­nawa­tra-led Pheu Thai Party is a

“The military has de­signed the elec­toral process so that it will be im­pos­si­ble for a party who wants to re­duce the military’s power to ac­tu­ally win a ma­jor­ity in govern­ment”

military-man­dated elec­toral shift to a new sys­tem that would make it dif­fi­cult for any one party to form a govern­ment on its own.

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 ex­tra­parlia­men­tary. 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

“The state has the li­cence to kill pro­test­ers, and no­body has been brought to jus­tice. The Thai pop­u­lace will have to ex­press more courage in com­ing out to sup­port those peo­ple”

of Thais to protest the military's might will take the fight for Thai­land's fu­ture back to the streets seems re­mote.

“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.”

Red­shirt anti-govern­ment pro­test­ers shout slo­gans dur­ing a rally in re­mem­brance of their com­rades killed in the 2010 military crack­down

For­mer Thai Prime Min­is­ter Yingluck Shi­nawa­tra say­ing good­bye to her sup­port­ers af­ter step­ping down in 2014

Clock­wise from left: ex­iled for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Thaksin Shi­nawa­tra; a stu­dent ac­tivist is de­tained dur­ing a silent protest crit­i­cis­ing the military-backed con­sti­tu­tion; Thai Prime Min­is­ter Prayuth Chan-ocha cast­ing his bal­lot in the 2016 con­sti­tu­tional ref­er­en­dum

Thanathorn Juan­groon­gru­angkit, the bil­lion­aire co-founder of the Fu­ture For­ward PartyPro-govern­ment pro­test­ers wave na­tional flags dur­ing a protest at Vic­tory Mon­u­ment in Bangkok in 2010

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