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Interview

Thailand repression will only feed public anger: Thanathorn

Embattled Future Forward leader senses 'change' ahead of 'Run Against Dictatorship'

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the anti-military Future Forward Party, speaks to the Nikkei Asian Review in Bangkok. (Photo by Wasu Vipoosanapat)

BANGKOK -- Thai opposition star Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit has warned that efforts to silence him and his Future Forward Party will only create "more angry people," as he fights for his own political survival.

The pro-military government and its ultraconservative proxies think that "dissolving us would stop the momentum that is building up against them, but I think otherwise," he told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview at Future Forward's Bangkok headquarters. "Everywhere I go you can feel the winds of change. It is tangible."

This appears to be supported by a surge in registrations for a "Run Against Dictatorship" planned for dawn this Sunday. What was envisioned as a 6 km run in Bangkok, with a few thousand participants showing discontent with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's government, has rapidly expanded. As of Tuesday, over 10,000 people had signed up for the Bangkok route north of the city, while cities in 26 provinces had scheduled similar protest runs.

But Prayuth is making light of this protest. "There are only a thousand, or several thousand people behind these movements, while everyone else suffers the consequence of them," he told the Thai media in Government House, as the prime minister's office is known.

Meanwhile, the beleaguered Thanathorn faces mounting legal problems. He has been under heavy pressure since his newly formed party won an impressive 80 seats in the March 2019 general elections -- largely on the back of a sizable youth vote. He has already lost his parliamentary seat after a controversial ruling in November by the Constitutional Court over nondisclosure of shares in an obscure media organization.

This month, the same court is widely expected to ban Future Forward over accusations that it belongs to the Illuminati, a fictitious secret society viewed in ultraroyalist circles as a threat to the Thai monarchy. The court has made similar controversial rulings against popular pro-democracy parties since a military coup back in 2006, fueling outrage among millions of disenfranchised voters and widening Thailand's political polarization.

Thanathorn said the anti-regime anger bubbling to the surface goes beyond feelings of disappointment with the government led by Prayuth, who has held power since the last military coup in 2014. As commander of the army, Prayuth toppled an elected government and established a junta that ruled for nearly five years, before forming a quasi-civilian coalition government after last year's elections.

"The feelings have evolved and there is a need for action everywhere," Thanathorn told Nikkei. "I think this year, 2020, will be a big year for Thailand -- there will be change."

He dismissed views, shared among allies of the establishment, that Prayuth's leadership has ensured calm after nearly a decade of angry street protests, a shutdown of Bangkok and bloody political clashes. "You think it is peace and order that they have claimed?" he asked, shooting back: "No! It is repression. It is not peace. The conflict has not gone, but is under the surface."

Thanathorn himself plans to join the "Run Against Dictatorship" in Bangkok to show solidarity.

"It has been organized online, electronically, and it is leaderless, in the sense there is no famous leader to lead this [event]," said the trim 41-year-old, whose family owns an auto-parts manufacturing empire. "This is the first time such a protest [in this form] is being organized against Prayuth, and this is what they fear; they fear change."

Thanathorn gestures to his supporters at a sudden unauthorized rally in Bangkok on Dec. 14, 2019.    © Reuters

The government's response has followed a familiar pattern, despite official claims that the country is going through a democratic transition. It is deploying the police and local authorities to stop the run, inflaming anger on social media.

In the northeastern province of Ubon Ratchathani, local officials called for canceling the event under the pretext it would prevent monks in the predominantly Buddhist country from making their morning rounds to receive food. In the northern province of Phayao, the police rejected a request for permission to hold the mini-marathon in the provincial capital.

Thanathorn expressed no surprise at the tactics. His party, he said, is accustomed to similar restrictions.

"The police and security officials show up at our events and take photos of vehicles of attendees, visit their houses, and even pressure owners of venues we had hired," he said. "Most of the time we can only rent a space once because the owner wouldn't like to give it for the second time because they have to face this intimidation and threats."

He said the tight controls indicate a failure on the part of the establishment -- including the powerful military, courts and ultraroyalists -- to grasp the political mood, implying that targeting his party will not stop the wave of youth opposition.

Thailand's recent political history offers some parallels about the consequences of such heavy-handed tactics. Two rulings by the Constitutional Court to ban political parties formed by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a nemesis of the ultraroyalists, helped spawn the pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts," the country's largest grassroots movement. The Red Shirts had wide support among the urban and rural poor, and helped parties formed by Thaksin -- who was ousted in the 2006 coup and lives as a fugitive in exile -- to remain a political force. Even after the dissolutions, Thaksin-backed parties won two elections.

"They [the regime] demonize us, and after Thaksin they need a new enemy," Thanathorn said. "I have become the enemy of the state. They need a new specter to justify their existence."

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