We meet Thailand’s new pro-democracy leader who is facing a ban from politics.
Thailand’s centre-left Future Forward party (ffp) shocked the political establishment last year by coming third in the general election and winning a chunk of the youth vote, less than a year after it was founded. The party’s young leader is Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, 41, a billionaire scion of manufacturing company Thai Summit.
Juangroongruangkit, known as TJ, had his career in international development cut short when his father’s death prompted him to return home. He then ran the family’s car-parts business for 15 years before stepping down in 2017 to enter politics.
TJ co-founded the ffp on a pro-democracy platform to keep the army out of politics; now the generals have done their best to return the favour. Though he won a seat in parliament, TJ was quickly disqualified by the constitutional court for allegedly violating an electoral law, while a separate February court ruling saw the ffp dissolved and its leadership (including TJ) banned from politics for a decade and facing potential jail terms. TJ says the ffp will re-emerge as a “movement” and is determined to continue agitating for democratic reform of Thailand’s parliamentary system from outside it.
Just before the court ruling in February that dissolved TJ’s ffp, monocle went to meet the politician and father of four at his home in a gated compound in Samut Prakan, a coastal province immediately to the south of Bangkok.
What does the ruling banning your party mean for the future?
We might have ceased to exist as a political party but they cannot dissolve our ideology, they cannot dissolve our people; 6.3 million [voters] put their hopes in our hands. The “Future Forward movement” will continue our journey. It’s time the junta let go of power before causing any bloodshed. That’s where our journey is headed. Even if it means confronting the junta.
Why do you think that some are calling you the Thai Macron?
Macron, Trudeau, Ardern, the new generation; we all want to see change. We believe in the capabilities of the people and we believe that we can contribute more to our society, our country and the world. We see potential in international co-operation. In our case we are not fighting an election; we are fighting a regime. A democratic Thailand will be better for everyone.
How would you score Thai democracy from zero to 100?
Right now I would give it 25. There’s no 100 per cent democracy but we are far from that.
Why did you go into politics?
My business was at a peak in 2017, and my private life was very beautiful, but I wasn’t happy about the future of our country. Bad politics is bad economics and it also creates a lot of social tension. The gap between rich and poor has been widening over the past five years and this is not the society I want my children to grow up in. Thailand can go further but there’s a chain holding us back. I didn’t see anyone out there with a will strong enough to break that chain, so I said, “Well, I have to do it myself.”
Are you happier now?
I’m not. When you have 29 [court] cases against you, you’re not [going to be] very happy about it. But at least I’m convincing people that there should be no more coups d’état and no more corruption in Thailand. In the past, Thai people hated corruption so they invited military intervention – but the public is starting to see that they’re basically the same thing. In order to fight corruption, you don’t need to turn back to an authoritarian regime, you need to inject democracy. So I’m happy that we’re winning the war of ideas, even though we’re losing on the legal front.
Are you prepared to go to prison for your cause?
It’s possible, I cannot deny that. These cases are politically motivated but we are not afraid. I knew this would happen even before we set up the party; it’s just coming sooner than we originally thought.
Do you think you could have been more careful?
We have 29 cases. How crazy is that? No matter how careful we are, we would still [be subject to] cases anyway. In Thailand there’s basically no democratic space left. Physically, you have no public space to organise a demonstration because the law, which was passed during the military junta, says that you need to have approval from the authorities.
Will this stop you from organising public gatherings?
No, no, no. People are very angry with the government and this will evolve into public gatherings organised by us or by others. The anger is real. The will to push for change is tangible. So I don’t think the government can stop this.
How many people do you need on the streets?
The purpose is not to topple the government with violence. It’s to bend them to compromise, bend them to sit down and talk. Where should our country be going? How should we untie all these political knots that have been there for a decade already? If we don’t do anything, we are going down very fast. If we have 50,000 people or 100,000 people on the streets, they will have to sit down and talk.
Assuming the government does talk. What are you asking for?
A new constitution. The 2017 constitution was written in a way that consolidates power in the hands of the few – the establishment, the elite, the junta; whatever you want to call them. Thailand needs a new agreement, a new consensus, a new social contract that would bind us together. This is basically the only way out.
Imagine you had won the election. Where would you position Thailand in global politics?
We want to be an active player that helps to solve the world’s problems. It’s wrong to deny the rise of China but we want to help convince them that they should also be a responsible global power. We should co-ordinate the asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] voice and balance China and the US. At the same time there’s a rising India, so we have to work with them closely as well.
Has Washington been hard enough on the military since the last coup d’état in 2014?
If you topple this authoritarian government by external force, the change will not be sustainable. If you want the change to be sustainable, it has to come from the inside. I tend to focus more on the internal factors when I’m talking about change.
This century alone the military has twice deposed an elected government in Thailand. General Prayut Chan-o-cha led the most recent coup in 2014 and last year held on to power by changing the constitution and, allegedly, stuffing ballot boxes.
Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been the military’s main adversary until now and a party linked to him won the most seats in last year’s election. But Sinawatra is in exile, so the Future Forward party (FFP) is enemy number one.
“The FFP is a force like no other,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “They represent a voter base that is fed up with the status quo – and Juangroongruangkit [TJ] is the real deal.”
ffp politicians have voted against giving the palace control of two army regiments and have called for reforms to the constitutional monarchy – risky moves given the Thai king’s growing political involvement and the country’s harsh laws against insulting the royal family.
Bangkok’s political circles are betting on a change of government by October. All three leaders – the general, the exile and the upstart – are likely to play a part. Taking down TJ is seen as a spark that could bring the people, and the army, onto the streets.