BANGKOK – Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a 40-year-old up-and-comer in Thai politics, is the most prominent face of the anti-military movement, is defiant in the face of a slew of legal challenges.
The media entrepreneur is the leader of the newly-formed Anakot Mai or “Future Forward Party,” which secured the third highest number of votes in elections held on March 24, the first since the coup in 2014, as well as 81 out of 500 seats in the lower house of parliament.
Thanathorn resigned from his position as vice-president of the largest auto parts manufacturer in Thailand and as director of Thai media conglomerate Matichon, both owned by his family, to step into the country’s unstable political arena with only one goal in mind: “that military coup d’etats have to be history in this country.”
“If you look at our proposal, military reformation, decentralization, these things are not radical. But here in this country, where power has been concentrated in the hands of the few for too long, these things are becoming an almost an impossible task. So somebody has to stand up and say, ‘enough is enough.’ I waited for someone to stand up for this for so long but yet no one stood up,” he tells EFE in an interview.
Anakot Mai’s progressive agenda, its social media presence and the youthful image of its leader and many of its candidates have made it popular among young Thai voters, and it is part of a coalition led by the party with the most seats in Congress, the Pheu Thai, which hopes to form the next government.
“If you look at the policies of each party, you don’t see many big differences; when it comes to how to modernize, the agricultural sector, Pheu Thai and Democrats are all the same. When we are talking about how to develop better welfare for the people, the parties are all basically the same,” he says from the party’s headquarters in Bangkok.
“What differentiates us from the rest is that we have a political project (...) Our policies are designed in a way that we tackle the establishment, big capital, centralization of power in Bangkok, and the army; we understand full well that under the current architecture of power you can’t do all these issue-based policies,” he says.
“You have to stop big capital’s control over politics. When you look at big capital in Thailand, they are either (part of a) monopolistic market or oligopolistic market. They suck up all the resources, all the taxpayer money,” he explains.
“We want the Scandinavian model of welfare. We have the money. We have enough resources; it’s just that the resources in this country go to big capital, right? So you have to stop them and you have enough money to spread the output of economic growth to the majority of the people. If you want a welfare state, you tackle this problem. Big capital wants to work with the military government. Because you have to negotiate with politicians, who come from the people,” he adds.
However, according to the mechanism chosen by the Electoral Commission to allocate the seats in the parliament, since the anti-junta coalition does not have the majority of seats and the senate is composed of members handpicked by the military, it is likely that the next government will be headed by the current prime minister, Prayuth Chan-o-cha, leader of the 2014 coup.
“Building the party is also very important because we know that this is going to be the long term. No one in our party believes that this election would change everything. We know that this is a journey. I would be very happy if we could finish our mission within a decade but it is going to be very difficult to do that,” Anakot Mai’s president explains.
The young politician is also facing several legal cases that could see him disqualified or jailed if found guilty, and the country’s Constitutional Court has temporarily suspended him from his duties as a member of parliament for allegedly violating electoral laws by holding shares in a media company.
Thanathorn denies the charges, but has little faith in the independence of the Thai judiciary as he says that “the military junta not only has guns and tanks, they also have power controlling the state apparatus.”
“My opinion about the Constitutional Court, in general, is that it tends to be a fortress for conservative forces. If you look at what happened in the last 10 years, you will see that the actions of the Court tend to be against the democratic forces,” he adds.
One of the most frequent accusations leveled against Thanathorn and his party by conservatives is that they are anti-monarchists in disguise who do not show due respect to the king and intend to destroy the monarchy, one of the most powerful and revered institutions in Thailand.
“Monarchy as an institution can coexist with democracy. There is no party policy calling for the abolition of monarchy, as an institution. We believe that coexistence is possible. You need a devil, you need a demon for the military government to exist (...) and that’s us, the FFP,” Thanathorn says.
The monarchy is a highly sensitive issue in the country, which has one of the world’s strictest lèse-majesté laws, and the usually confident Thanathorn is visibly uncomfortable when asked about the laws banning criticism of the monarchy, which his party has promised not to change.
“We understand the limits of what is doable,” he reluctantly acknowledges.