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Thanathorn: the rise and fall of a Thai political icon

Can the movement he founded thrive in his absence?

One way to understand Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, 41, founder of Thailand's Future Forward Party, is as exemplifying the hyper-leader who "floats above the party like a gas balloon and attempts to lift the party's militancy and its electorate all by himself." (Photo courtesy of Duncan McCargo) 

Eager to see the Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit in action, I headed to Thammasat University's ThaPrachan campus on the Chao Phraya River on 17 March 2019, just a week before the general election.

Thanathorn was scheduled to take part in a televised debate that evening, but I'd been tipped off that he would hold an informal meeting with his supporters beforehand near the Pridi Banomyong statue, in front of Thammasat's famous Dome building. Suddenly, Thanathorn's lanky frame emerged from the shrubbery, his signature white shirt dripping with sweat after an afternoon on the campaign trail. He had no staff with him and was trailed by a group of mainly female fans, who waylaid him with requests for selfies and autographs -- making his progress toward the meeting place painfully slow. When Thanathorn reached the arranged spot, an impromptu ensemble of followers gathered around him, hanging on his every word.

When I had visited the Future Forward office in Bangkok for the first time in August 2018, Thanathorn opened the door himself and offered to make me a cup of coffee. Meeting Thanathorn again soon afterward for an event at the London School of Economics, I asked whether he had spent much time in London during his year studying at the University of Nottingham in the late 1990s. "No," he said. "I never had much money for traveling around the country back then." Later that evening I ended up buying him a drink because he didn't seem to have any cash or even a credit card. When newly elected MPs had to submit their assets declarations the following year, Thanathorn turned out to be the richest member of the Thai parliament.

One way to understand Thanathorn is as exemplifying the hyper-leader, a new mode of political leader who, according to Paulo Gerbaudo, "floats above the party like a gas balloon and attempts to lift the party's militancy and its electorate all by himself." Thanathorn's Twitter feed carried the provocative byline: "The Future Forward Party Leader & an Adventurer. All in for pushing physical and mental strength, be it through sport or political intrigue."

That said, Thanathorn himself balked at the characterization of Future Forward as a personalized organization and insisted that his own "pop star" image accounted for less than 5% of the party's electoral support. But his carefully crafted persona was nevertheless a central component of Future Forward's electoral appeal. Ironically, a core element of that image was Thanathorn's self-conscious rejection of image-building and insistence that he was an extremely genuine figure -- his own man. Thanathorn claimed that while he recognized the soft power of cultural messaging, he did not listen to any new music or follow popular culture himself, an interesting assertion for somebody who rapidly became a kind of cultural icon for Thai teenagers and young adults.

Thanathorn was 18 when Thailand was hit by the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Among the books that influenced him during this period was Vladimir Lenin's "The State and Revolution." (Photo courtesy of Duncan McCargo)

As we had discovered, Thanathorn rarely carries money. Anything he needs, he has to ask his wife to buy for him. Well known for wearing identical generic white shirts with a geeky clutch of three pens in his pocket, prior to entering politics he always wore the same Thai Summit company jackets. Thanathorn has claimed that does not go shopping, has never opened a fashion magazine, or set foot inside upscale Bangkok malls such as EM Quartier or Central Embassy. He uses toothpaste, but not soap. In short, Thanathorn is an "organic man," an iconic anti-style icon.

Thanathorn's personal narrative emphasized the early poverty of his Sino-Thai family, and the fact that as a teenager his mother forced him to do manual work in their factory, in a hotel, and in a restaurant. He insisted that these formative experiences helped him understand the lives of ordinary people, and to empathize with them. They made him want to use his privileged position to do good. Thanathorn clearly had a much more grounded and down-to-earth upbringing than many of his peers. Even so, he was extremely rich. Still, while Thanathorn is often characterized as a "billionaire," and his 2019 assets declaration as an incoming MP gave his wealth as close to 6 billion baht ($185 million), this fell far short of a billion U.S. dollars.

Thanathorn was 18 when Thailand was hit by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which he calls a "formative year" for people of his generation. He was distressed when some of his less well-off university friends were forced to abandon their studies because of the economic downturn that led to mass redundancies and business closures. Among the books that influenced Thanathorn was Vladimir Lenin's "The State and Revolution," which introduced him to Marxism. Thanathorn the leftist capitalist was born during this period.

After attending the elite Triam Udom Suksa high school, Thanathorn enrolled in an international joint degree program in mechanical engineering at Thammasat University that included a year at the University of Nottingham. This was a typical trajectory for students from wealthy Sino-Thai backgrounds in the 1990s. His primary interest during his student days was activism. Because of his unusual combination of wealth and activism, Thanathorn quickly became a big man on campus.

Following his father Pattana's death from cancer in 2002, Thanathorn had to set aside his passion for social activism to take over the family company, the auto parts conglomerate Thai Summit. (Photo courtesy of Duncan McCargo)

A defining May 2000 photograph shows a long-haired Thanathorn confronting riot police while leading a protest by the Assembly of the Poor. Two decades later, this picture burnished his activist credentials, and boosted the popularity of Future Forward. Thanathorn's parents were unimpressed by his political activism. When the photo of Thanathorn appeared on the front page of national newspapers one morning, his mother immediately sent people to look for him at the demonstration:

"When I got home, we had a big fight," Thanathorn remembers. " At the time, I and my father and mother fought very often about the way I lived my life ... whenever I saw family members, I always received sarcastic comments that I belonged to other people not our people."

Following his father Pattana's death from cancer in 2002, Thanathorn had to set aside his passion for social activism -- and a United Nations job as a development worker in Algeria -- to take over the family company, the auto parts conglomerate Thai Summit. Nor did the 23-year-old Thanathorn take the easy option of keeping the business ticking over. Despite his complete lack of experience, he plunged into aggressive expansion plans, rapidly building Thai Summit into a much more successful company: Revenues more than quadrupled during Thanathorn's 17 years at the helm. Thai Summit opened factories in seven countries, including in the U.S., where they produced chassis for electric vehicle maker Tesla. Thanathorn's business acumen and financial prowess were important components of his charisma, which in turn translated into electoral appeal.

Despite Thanathorn's professions of sympathy both for ordinary people and for socialist ideologies, Thai Summit was hardly a standard-bearer for enlightened labor relations. In 2007, Thailand Summit Eastern Seaboard Auto Parts Company was condemned by the International Metalworkers' Federation, as well as Thailand's National Human Rights Commission, for violations of trade union and human rights at their Rayong plants. Union workers were unfairly dismissed and their rights to freedom of association were obstructed. Thanathorn was well aware of the incongruities in his identity as a social activist and a business owner, as he admitted in a January 2007 interview:

"Two years ago I had to shut down one of my factories and lay off 700 employees," Thanathorn said. "After I shut the factory down, I got in the car and cried. It was the first time I cried over work. I felt the pain. But, as a business owner I had to do it."

Between March and May 2010, the pro-Thaksin red-shirt movement led by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), took to the streets of Bangkok to protest against the Abhisit Vejjajiva government, demanding a parliamentary dissolution and fresh elections. On April 10, 2010, the military and the government tried to disperse the demonstrations near Phan Fa Bridge in the heart of the old city, leaving 26 dead. Thanathorn was among hundreds of protesters wounded that day, when his left shoulder was struck by a rubber bullet. Another 54 people were killed during the final Ratchaprasong crackdown between May 14 and May 19, until the red-shirts finally surrendered. Thanathorn was so distraught about the loss of life that he spent the night of May 19 sobbing in bed.

Despite claiming to have no interest in popular culture, Thanathorn is extremely willing to appear on teenage websites such as Sista Cafe, which helps explain his powerful appeal to younger voters. (Photo courtesy of Duncan McCargo)

Thanathorn's mother, Somporn, worked alongside her husband to build up Thai Summit. After Pattana died, she became chair of the company and head of the family, always disagreeing with Thanathorn's political activism. On March 4, 2018, Thanathorn called for a family meeting and announced that he had decided to establish a political party and become a full-time politician. Thanathorn and his mother became embroiled in a heated argument. Somporn asked him: "Between Thai Summit and Thailand, which one would you choose?" Bravely, he answered: Thailand. "If I could have beaten him that day I would," Somporn said. "He answered without caring how I would feel." Realizing that she could not prevent Thanathorn from pursuing his political goals, Somporn became one of his most ardent supporters.

Why did Thanathorn have such a powerful appeal to voters, especially younger voters? Thanathorn has appeared in numerous YouTube shows popular among the younger demographic. Despite claiming to have no interest in popular culture, he is extremely willing to appear on teenage websites such as Sista Cafe, where he was interviewed by a well-known beauty blogger.

There was a significant crossover between Thanathorn's Twitter fan base, and the fans of Korean boy bands. One of the most interesting among Thanathorn's YouTube interviews focused on his life as a teenager. While insisting that he was an "average kid," Thanathorn was very active and sporty as a high school student -- without being an outstanding athlete. His leadership became evident when he fought on behalf of a friend who was being bullied, reflecting an early concern for justice. Thanathorn also played up his romantic guy image, a recurrent theme in his interviews, talking about how he used to ask girls out when he was younger, and how he wooed his wife by singing to her. Although insisting that he was a very serious person, Thanathorn also became adept at deploying a lighter side, largely devoid of political content, which was very attractive to his teenage fans.

A central challenge for Future Forward was to institutionalize the party beyond the celebrity triumvirate of Thanathorn, Piyabutr and Pannika. Thanathorn was unrivaled within Future Forward. In this sense at least, he was the hyper-leader par excellence, despite his humble demeanor and conspicuous lack of megalomania. Suspended from being an MP and then banned from political office, can the movement Thanathorn founded continue to thrive?

This is an 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.

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