Even though Thailand’s junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha may break his promise to hold elections once again, the prospect of polls being held in February next year has nonetheless at least left some hope for progress in Thailand. As that window of opportunity has opened, news about prospective politicians who might join the race has been surfacing as well.
Of particular note is a young, self-made billionaire named Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. Thanathorn, 39, is a vice president of Thai Summit Group, a leading auto parts manufacturer of Thailand. Forced to enter the business world at a young age following the passing of his father, Thanathorn inherited a company and successfully transformed it into a global conglomerate.
Now, Thanathorn is interested in politics. He made sensational headlines in Thailand in the past week with his plan to launch a political party. His political vision has generated significant chatter in Thailand, including on social media among the younger generation. At this hour, nothing seems to be able to stop the Thanathorn fever.
It is no surprise that Thanathorn has rapidly emerged as a darling of the media. On a more superficial level, because of his good looks, charismatic personality, and moral courage, Thanathorn has lightened up a new hope for Thailand. But more substantively, he has vowed to compensate for his country’s “lost decade” by reading out of a new political script, and he has been articulating his agenda on a variety of topics, including promoting democracy, fixing the ailing economy, building a high-tech society, and creating a space for LGBT groups.
Apart from the current sensationalism, it is also worth noting that Thanathorn has in fact long been known within intellectual circles in Thailand as a pro-democracy figure. And in the past, he voiced his strong opinions on controversial political issues, mostly criticizing the old forces for the protracted crisis in Thailand. Today, he vows to challenge the political elite and strives to shift the power structure, supposedly to benefit the underprivileged.
Thanathorn has talked succinctly about the current political crisis in Thailand as the basis of his political narrative. He has explained that the political consensus among key players was broken down, while the new one has not been discovered. This is not news to those familiar with Thailand. Since the downfall of the Thaksin Shinawatra government, as a result of a coup that overthrew him in 2006, Thailand has been battling with its domestic political upheaval. The royal transition that took place in 2016, after the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, has further complicated the political situation, which remains unresolved to date.
Yet challenges lie ahead for Thanathorn despite this early promise and his string of promises. The junta has made sure its legacy will survive past elections, and should any new political force enter the fray, it will have to operate within those parameters. It should not be forgotten that the military took power by staging another coup in 2014—this time to topple Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck—to ensure that it could manage the uncertain royal succession. And in the process, the military drafted a new constitution, which is now perceived to be rather anti-democratic and instrumental to the maintenance of the power of the old elite. The election for Thanathorn is therefore likely to be just the beginning of a process for new political forces to push for change rather than an end to the Thai political crisis in and of itself.
In this broader context, Thanathorn has admitted too that there is a high possibility of a political confrontation between the new and old generations as a ferocious competition plays out to win over the hearts and minds of Thai voters. Instead of shying away from this, Thanathorn has urged the younger generation to be ready to engage in such a battle, even though it is highly risky and possibly fatal. Whether they will heed this call or not remains to be seen.
Additionally, Thanathorn’s opponents are monitoring him closely, and, already, old tactics are being employed to delegitimize him at this early stage. He has been accused of being an anti-monarchist because of his sponsorship of a local journal with contents critical of the monarchy (Thaksin was effectively removed from power because of this kind of accusation). This proves that the journey of Thanathron is not without problems.
A more arduous task for Thanathorn rests on his ability to gain support from the majority of Thailand. So far, he has been well received among the younger population in the urban areas. How he is able to connect his political party with the underprivileged in the countryside is the real challenge. He needs their serious support if he is to become a successful alternative choice in Thailand’s fiercely contested politics.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. He is currently visiting professor at the Department of Development Studies, University of Vienna, Austria.