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Looking forward to Thailand's future

Four scenarios emerge for the opening of a new political space

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the founder of Thailand's now banned Future Forward Party, was the political choice of most first-time voters in the March 2019 elections. Banning the party left 6.3 million people disenfranchised and in many cases angry. (Photo by Akira Kodaka) 

In the months following Thailand's March 2019 election, Future Forward became the third-largest party in parliament. At its helm, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was effectively the de facto anti-establishment leader and potential nemesis of assertive army commander Gen. Apirat Kongsompong. Could the two sides come to an understanding?

Future Forward's secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul claimed in an interview that right after the election, he and Thanathorn had been urged by a senior government figure to withdraw from public life and leave Thailand for five years if they wanted to prevent the party from being dissolved. From that moment on, they believed that dissolution was extremely likely: It was just a matter of time.

Shortly before Future Forward's dissolution in February, it emerged that Thanathorn and Piyabutr had joined a private dinner meeting with Apirat in September 2019, but these "secret talks" had not resolved the standoff between the two sides. Not long after that, Apirat delivered a stinging lecture titled "Our Land," indirectly attacking Thanathorn and Piyabutr as unnamed "pretentious leftists" who were "betraying the nation." Thanathorn told me that he and Piyabutr were willing to talk to Apirat because they wanted to seek his support for various reform agendas. However, they could not reach any mutual understanding and the two sides did not meet again.

Following the failed meeting with Apirat, it was clear that no deal with the establishment was possible to resolve the impasse between two forces. After Future Forward was banned, Piyabutr publicly informed the person he cryptically termed "the director" of a movie called "Dissolving the Political Party" that the story was not going to follow his script. Far from ending their roles, the Future Forward leaders would press on with their political campaigns.

At this point Future Forward split in two, reincarnated in parliament as Move Forward, a new party with 54 MPs, and as an insurgent activist project called the Progressive Movement. The separation reflected a structural contradiction that had plagued Future Forward from the outset. Was it a political party, dedicated to transforming the system from within? In other words, was it part of a project of long-term "political reform" -- a phrase that had unfortunately been hijacked by the military and the movement against exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra? Or was it, as Thanathorn and other leaders had suggested in speeches and interviews, a bunch of disrupters, trying not so much to improve the system, but to bring it crashing down?

Shortly before Future Forward's dissolution in February, it emerged that Thanathorn and Future Forward's Secretary-General Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, right, joined a private dinner with assertive army commander Gen. Apirat Kongsompong.   © AP

In many ways, Thanathorn was just not a political party guy. He had agonized at the beginning about whether to start a movement or launch a party. Now that the party had been banned, he could pass that bothersome baton to Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat and get on with the real project: political agitation and intellectual sabotage. The goal: to provoke a crisis of faith in Thailand's power structures, and to inspire a younger generation to dismantle them -- even if the process took decades to work through.

In a speech on the day that Thailand's Constitutional Court dissolved the Future Forward Party, Piyabutr quoted a classic Thai novel, "Peesart" ("Ghost") by Seni Saowaphong. The novel urges readers to seize the opportunity to alter their destinies:

"This is not the end, but the beginning. Because we are the ghost that Time has created to haunt those people living in the old world, old thinking," the novel reads. "[We] caused them to be paranoid, to be fearful, and there is nothing that can soothe them as much as there is nothing that can stop the progress of Time that will keep on creating many more of these ghosts."

Although the immediate aftermath of the ban on Future Forward was somewhat muted, the resurgent student-led protests that have reemerged in Thailand since mid-July illustrate that Piyabutr's call to arms has been heard. These widespread protests, which feature demands for reform of the monarchy and challenges to the paternalism of Thai society, are unprecedented in their boldness and ambition.

Thailand's Future Forward Party, led by Thanathorn, 41, did not last two years. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

Future Forward was the political choice of most first-time voters in the March 2019 elections. Banning the party left 6.3 million people disenfranchised and in many cases angry. While not behind these youth protests in any conventional sense, the party helped to open up the new political space in which the students are now campaigning. By closing down the hopes of a new generation of Thais, the authorities virtually forced them into rally mode. When you make working within the system impossible, you drive your opponents to work outside it.

The success of the ideas encapsulated by the Future Forward Party remains unclear, but that future is deeply bound up in what lies ahead for this divided nation, haunted by violence and injustices. More than one future is possible for Thailand. Four short scenarios offer snapshots of potential alternative futures, in the full knowledge that many other scenarios might unfold instead.

Pax Thanathorn: A combination of the Move Forward Party and the political movement that emerged from Future Forward succeeds in mobilizing most of Thailand's younger generation to turn against the country's existing power structures. Over time, through a combination of electoral successes, online activism, media campaigns, and intermittent street protests, a political consensus emerges that the military needs to return to the barracks and that Thailand's monarchy should be explicitly subordinated to a new constitution that emphasizes popular sovereignty.

A refreshed Constitutional Court bans one or more military-aligned parties on the basis that their collusive relationships with state actors involve illegal abuses of power. Some particularly corrupt generals and their civilian associates are convicted of crimes. Privileged business concessions are canceled and new anti-monopoly laws are passed. At some point, Thanathorn and other former Future Forward leaders return to politics and assume prominent positions in the public life of the country.

Pro-democracy protesters make their trademark three-finger salute in Bangkok on Oct. 25.   © Reuters

The status quo continues: The political polarization that has divided Thailand since 2005 continues apace. More years pass with no clear resolution, as the generational and aspirational rifts between the two sides continue to grow. Deploying all the resources at its disposal, an increasingly authoritarian state maintains order through a combination of well-targeted "lawfare" and the suppression of dissenting voices on social media.

Move Forward may or may not be dissolved eventually by the Constitutional Court. But progressive activists continue to agitate, gaining more and more support. Inequalities of wealth and power are perpetuated, provoking increasing resentment, especially among urbanized villagers and provincial populations, who find themselves unable to effectively resist state authority but refuse simply to acquiesce. Neither side can prevail over the other, resulting in an uneasy stalemate that persists for some years. Nevertheless, there are no massive protests, and there is no mass violence.

Perfect storm: Polarization intensifies over time. Pro-military parties are torn asunder by factional infighting, mirroring rising tensions between the Royal Thai Army and other key state institutions. New parties emerge on both government and opposition sides, as competing elite interests fragment. The Move Forward Party is dissolved by the Constitutional Court, whereupon activist groups, some linked to the Progressive Movement, organize flash mobs and other protests that infuriate the regime, and are no longer confined to campuses. Thanathorn and other former Future Forward leaders are targeted in a series of crackdowns as the establishment continues to try to reassert control. New generation Thais become openly defiant toward their elders as deference and hierarchies collapse. The country moves toward a virtual breakdown in civility and in public order.

Pax establishment: In our final scenario, the Thai establishment establishes a firm and all-encompassing grip on power. Some form of national unity government is brought in, reducing parliament to a virtual rubber stamp. After Move Forward refuses to join, it is soon banned. Political parties merge into a de facto collectivity, and residual opposition politicians are bought off with generous financial incentives that ensure their acquiescence. Thaksin gives up fighting the powers that be.

The success of the ideas encapsulated by the Future Forward Party and its founder Thanathorn remains deeply bound up in what lies ahead for this divided nation. (Photo by Akira Kodaka) 

Elections are still held at intervals but have little practical import, since a military-monarchical alliance now controls the bureaucracy, as well as all substantive budgetary and legislative decisions. The hybrid authoritarian regime finds ever more sophisticated ways of curtailing online debate and dissent, and controlling social media. Unable to translate their idealism into practical political engagement or direct action, the new generation of digital natives opts for grudging compliance with the status quo.

Thanathorn and the old Future Forward leadership are banished from Thai public life, at least for the current reign -- only after which does a renegotiation of power relations again become possible.

Duncan McCargo is director of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies and professor of political science at the University of Copenhagen. This is the final adapted extract from "Future Forward: The Rise and Fall of a Thai Political Party" by Duncan McCargo and Anyarat Chattharakul, published by NIAS Press, Copenhagen, on Sept. 30, 2020. For the first extract see here.

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