Billionaire Thai political newbie seeks reform

People should not be ruled by unaccountable patronage networks, says Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit
Billionaire Thai political newbie seeks reform

Future Forward Party leader Thanatorn Juangroongruangkit stands outside Pathumwan police station after hearing sedition charges brought against him by the National Council for Peace and Order in Bangkok on April 6. (Photo by Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)

To his millions of supporters Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit is a shining bright light in Thai politics whose Future Forward Party could usher Thailand into a fine new era.

To his numerous detractors, however, the maverick young politician is a dangerous radical whose subversive ideas are aimed at undermining the country’s old traditions and its hallowed monarchy.

Energetic and charismatic with a sharp wit and a ready laugh, Thanathorn, 40, is well aware of the conflicting passions he excites in his homeland, which has been ruled by a military regime for the past five years but may now be transitioning to civilian rule after parliamentary elections held earlier this year.

“What I am trying to do is not radical,” Thanathorn, 40, an auto parts billionaire turned party leader, stressed at a meeting with foreign journalists last week.

His ideas may sound radical, he added with a hint of sarcasm, but “only in this country.”

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The platform of Future Forward, which Thanathorn founded a year ago with a small group of like-minded young Thais, might not merit too much notice in a western liberal democracy. Yet, if implemented, the party’s policies could well be transformative in Thailand.

The kingdom, which is best known for its welcoming locals, famed cuisine and spectacular beaches, is one of the world’s most unequal societies. Corruption remains endemic, aided by an almost feudal patronage system and a general lack of accountability for the rich and powerful. 

“The aspiration of Future Forward since the beginning and into the future remains the same: doing politics in a way that empowers people to remain hopeful and to drive the change they want to see in Thailand,” Thanathorn wrote in a recent post on his Twitter account, which has nearly 400,000 followers.

Among other plans, his party has promised to work towards reducing deeply entrenched social and economic inequalities through decentralization and targeted spending in disadvantaged rural areas. At present a large share of government spending is concentrated on Bangkok, often at the expense of the provinces where standards of living are significantly lower on average.

In order for poverty reduction schemes to work, more of the decision-making needs to be delegated to local communities, the Thai politician stresses. “We want local communities to have more say in how local resources are used. Who gets what, how and why?” he elucidated. “At the local level politics should be about cleaner air, better schools, better public transportation.”

Future Forward has also pledged to make governance more transparent and officials more accountable than they have often been. It seeks to do that partly by reducing the oversized role of the Thai military in the country’s political and economic affairs. 

“None of the other parties have the courage to tackle the root cause of the problems [such as frequent] military interventions in politics and the influence of big business on politics,” Thanathorn, a soft-spoken man who speaks fluent English, said. “We want to tackle them,” he added. “We’re working on what is the best way to restore democracy and move this country forward.”

Most Thais, he argues, would love to see sweeping political reforms in the country, whose decades-long democratic development has been marred by frequent spells of military authoritarianism interspersed with democratically elected but weak governments.

“The silent majority wants change and people want to be part of it. They are pushing us to work harder,” Thanathorn said. “Politics doesn’t have to be dirty. It can be constructive and raise living standards for everyone, not just a select few. We want to restore people’s faith in the democratic process.”

Failing to do so, he says, could lead to a return to the kind of mass protest that paralyzed large parts of Bangkok in 2014 and led to a military takeover with a subsequent repression of any dissent. As in the past, renewed street protests could precipitate yet another coup, which would then set Thailand’s democratic development ever further back, he said. 

Future Forward’s outspoken stance in challenging the status quo, along with hip social media campaigns, has resonated with Thai voters, especially the young. During national elections on March 24, the newly formed party took the polls by storm, winning some 6 million votes.

Thanathorn’s party came third behind Palang Pracharath, a newly formed military-allied party, and Pheu Thai, an electoral juggernaut allied with ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been in self-imposed exile after being deposed in a military coup in 2006 and subsequently charged with abuses of power.

The Future Forward Party now has 80 members, many of them still in their 20s, in the 500-seat House of Representatives where the average age of MPs is 45. Several of the progressive party’s MPs come from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds and will represent the interests of their communities, Thanathorn says.

The party’s new MPs include ethnic minorities, transgender people and even a farmer. “None of us have been in parliament before. We’re all new faces,” he said. “We’re very proud of the diversity in our party.”

Thanks to the electoral of Future Forward and the broad appeal of its platform, Thanathorn has catapulted from relative obscurity into political superstardom in Thailand within just a few months. He is greeted by enthusiastic crowds whenever he appears at public events.

The billionaire businessman insists, however, that Future Forward, to which he has lent 110 million baht of his own money, is not simply a vehicle for him to become politically dominant.

Unlike at several other parties in Thailand, whose sole apparent purpose is to serve as tools for rich and well-connected individuals to gain or retain political power for themselves and their patronage network, Thanathorn says he wants Future Forward to be less about individuals like himself than about transformative ideas. 

“We want to build a party for the people. It has to carry on even without me,” he said. Thailand, he noted, has long been ruled by nepotistic strongmen and well-connected political dynasties but “it’s time to change that.”

To pre-empt accusations of conflicts of interest in a country where money politics has long dominated, Thanathorn says he has placed his considerable personal fortune in a blind trust. “It’s not about me being the prime minister,” he stressed. “It’s about changing this nation for the better.” 

Yet meaningful change is exactly what the military-allied political bloc doesn’t seem to want. Incumbent prime minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, an army general who seized power in a coup in 2014 and is now seeking to retain his post as the nominee of Palang Pracharath, has been insisting that the best way forward for Thailand is to move backwards or at least stay still.

In his public utterances Prayuth routinely emphasizes the need for the country to be led by “good people,” presumably like himself, under the guidance of Thailand’s royal family in the interest of old social norms and political traditions. 

To that end, Prayuth and several other army generals have stacked the 250-member Senate, whose members are appointed, with their relatives and loyalists. That arrangement makes it unlikely that an anti-military coalition will be able to form the next government despite having the majority of seats in the Lower House. According to Thailand’s latest, military-drafted constitution the House of Representatives and the Senate will jointly appoint the country’s next prime minister.

Meanwhile, Thanathorn and other leaders of his party are facing several serious charges, which could see them jailed and their party dissolved. Among other pending legal cases, Thanathorn is facing a charge of sedition for allegedly giving a ride home in his car to a young political activist who had participated in a small and peaceful anti-junta rally in 2015 despite a ban on political gatherings at the time. Thanathorn will likely be tried in a military court and could end up in prison for years.

“They’re trying to intimidate us,” the politician said. The legal cases against him and his party, he added, have been “systematic, well-planned, and politically motivated.”

That is why the future of Future Forward Party, despite its forward-looking aims, hangs in the balance.

“Two weeks from now the party could be dissolved. Who knows?” Thanathorn offered. “But we can’t be paralyzed by fear. We need to focus on what we can control, not on what we can’t.”

As for his personal future, that, too, remains uncertain. “If the party is dissolved, I’m going to be unemployed. That much is clear,” he said with a laugh.

“And if I have to be in jail, so be it,” he stressed. “But we’re not giving up.”

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