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Autoparts billionaire shakes up Thai politics

Thai Summit Group executive Thanathorn launches party to oppose military rule

Autoparts executive Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit says he will retire from business to devote himself to working for democracy as head of a new party.

BANGKOK -- Nearly four years since Thailand's military seized power in a 2014 coup, the scion of the founding family of an Thai autoparts empire is building a new political movement to challenge the governing junta.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the 39-year-old billionaire executive vice president of Thai Summit Group, has set up a new party to oppose the regime led by Prayut Chan-ocha, a former general now serving as prime minister. 

While he has no previous political experience, the young, urbane Thanathorn is widely seen as a new hope for Thai politics. He has become one of the most vocal and high-profile critics of the military rulers, and his foray into politics could be help break the political impasse that has beset the country. But it also brings many unknowns.

For the past decade, Thai politics have been riven by a bitter division between supporters of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, mostly the rural farmers in the northeast and the urban poor, and the anti-Thaksin camp, which includes the military and the conservative establishment.

"We will not accept an outsider prime minister," Thanathorn said on March 15 as he launched his new party, called Anakot Mai (Future Forward Party), with much fanfare. He was referring to a provision in the new constitution that came into effect in April last year that allows parliament to choose a prime minister who has not been elected.

"We don't need governance through guns," Thanathorn said, affirming his party's commitment to "democratic principles."

Prime Minister Prayut has promised to hold a general election by February next year, but is widely believed to be intent on remaining in power after the poll.

The founding members of Thanathorn's party are a diverse group of democracy advocates, including academics, human rights activists, film industry executives and writers. Most are under the age of 40.

Thanathorn's political movement could be a threat to the military junta, which has been rocked by an alleged corruption involving Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan. Yet, while the new party could attract voters disillusioned with military rule, it will likely win only a few seats in an election, according to a Thai political pundit. 

Thanathorn has so far avoided unveiling a detailed party platform, wary of the military government's tight restrictions on political activities. But his remarks clearly echo the democratic creed he has espoused since his days as a student activist.

In a recent interview with the English-language Bangkok Post, Thanathorn indicated he will retire from management of Thai Summit and devote himself to working for democracy. He and party co-founder Piyabutr Saengkanokkul are ready "sacrifice" themselves to move the country forward, he said.

Thanathorn's unlisted company, Thai Summit Group, is a leading autoparts supplier with annual sales of around 80 billion baht ($2.56 billion). In 2009, it acquired Ogihara, a Japanese maker of automotive stamping products based in Ota, Gunma Prefecture.

The media attention being lavished on him appears to reflect deep public discontent with the political status quo. The country's politics have been deeply polarized for over a decade, marred by an unending feud between Thaksin followers, known as Red Shirts, and anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirts.

The pro-Thaksin camp has been criticized for corruption and populism, but has been effective in winning elections. The anti-Thaksin group, meanwhile, has gone along with two military coups to topple Thaksin governments, in 2006, and again in 2014 to unseat the government led by his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

Thaksin still has legions of loyal followers, even though he has been in self-imposed exile since the 2006 coup, and has been convicted of abusing power. Among the military-loyalist elite, he is the target of fierce and deep-rooted hatred.

Thanathorn's decision to retire from the family business empire may reflect a desire to distance himself from Thaksin's afterimage.

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