The Debate | Opinion | Southeast Asia

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit on the Struggle for a Free Thailand

Young Thais are becoming increasingly fed up with the stifling consensus and repeated military interventions in the country’s politics.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit on the Struggle for a Free Thailand

Bangkok’s Democracy Monument.

Credit: Flickr/Paul_the_Seeker

My country, Thailand, is not a democracy. Coup d’etat is a way of life. I witnessed my first coup at the age of 13, in 1991. It led to huge protests, calling for democracy, and a military crackdown that killed 44 people and wounded more than a thousand. At that time, I was too young to understand the violence that took place in my hometown. The only thing I remembered was that after a chaotic crackdown, my parents brought home a video tape, and the whole family sat down silently in our living room to watch the recorded footage of what is now called the Black May Massacre.

The second coup I witnessed was in 2006. This coup polarized Thai society, dividing the people into pro-democracy red shirts, and pro-establishment yellow shirts. Another crackdown followed, and this time 99 protesters were killed. To date, no one has been held accountable.

The third coup came in 2014, when the current Thai prime minister, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, seized power. Since then, the junta has cracked down on political opposition with an iron-fist, using lese-majeste laws and other politically motivated charges to imprison and silence human rights activists. To ensure that he stayed in power, General Prayut put a new constitution in place in 2017 so that no matter the outcome of a future election, he would be able to remain in control.

The Thai people have had enough of this vicious cycle of coup d’etats, protests, crackdowns, and sham elections. The younger generations refuse to stay silent. They want their children to grow up in a country where they can freely speak their minds.

I grew up more privileged than most Thai people, but I was never satisfied with the financial rewards of business. As one coup followed another, I saw how the military profited through corruption and tightened its control as the people suffered.

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In 2018, I decided to quit my family business and joined Thailand’s fight for democracy, equality, and freedom. I, together with like-minded fellows, founded the Future Forward Party, which aimed to restrict the military’s power in Thai politics and implement democratic political reforms. I wanted to retrieve power and put it back in the hands of the people, rather than the power-hungry rulers.

Our party was popular from the outset, and in the 2019 general election we won a total of 81 seats out of 500. Acknowledging the threat this popular movement posed, the military junta started targeting me and my colleagues in a bid to eliminate us. They were so desperate to get rid of us that they concocted a series of lies about us, claiming we attempted to overthrow the monarchy, misappropriated funds, and were even related to the mystical Illuminati. In February of this year, they successfully dissolved the Future Forward Party and banned me from politics for 10 years. The attempt to bring down our party has only fanned the flames of Thailand’s pro-democracy movement and increased the numbers of those willing to take a stand for real change.

Thailand has been an important ally of the United States for over 200 years, and our political stability wields great influence over other ASEAN countries. Today, the pro-military government has become increasingly friendly with China, alienating our democratic allies in the process. In a world where authoritarianism is on the rise, I hope Thailand can go against the tide and move toward democracy. People around the world who value freedom and democracy should stand with us, because what happens in Thailand will reverberate throughout the region and globally.

The party I founded may have been short-lived, but our message resonates across the country and will have a lasting impact. Although I now face a dozen politically motivated charges, I will continue to build a movement in Thailand that calls for a truly democratic, equal and free society.

Last weekend, I joined thousands of people in a protest in Bangkok calling for democratic reforms. The original venue for this protest, Thammasat University, was under so much pressure from the military that it decided to forbid the gathering. Despite the obstacles the military put in place, my fellow Thais poured out into the streets to fight for a better future. My freedom may be taken away from me very soon, but I will continue fighting for a more equal and democratic Thailand as long as I am free.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit is a pro-democracy politician from Thailand and the founder of the now-dissolved Future Forward Party. He will speak at the virtual Oslo Freedom Forum on September 24-25.