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Politics

Thailand's 'young bloods' vow to break old political cycle

Aspiring leaders are on the march as junta marks fourth anniversary

From left, rising Thai political stars Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, Varawut Silpa-archa and Parit Wacharasindhu (Photos by Hiroshi Kotani and Koji Nozawa)

BANGKOK -- Outspoken young politicians are pushing on the doors to Thailand's corridors of power, just as the military government marks its fourth anniversary on Tuesday and the country braces for a long-promised election early next year. 

The "young bloods," as they are known, are promising to pull the nation out of its cycle of coups and achieve its economic potential. Leading the pack is Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the scion of the billionaire family that runs the country's largest auto parts supplier. The 39-year-old decided to leave his position as executive vice president and director of Thai Summit Group to form a new political party, the Future Forward Party, earlier this year.

In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, Thanathorn vowed to stop military interventions in politics. "Every time democracy takes root into this country, the military will come in and crush it," he said.

Thailand has experienced 12 coups in the last eight-plus decades, including the one that established a constitutional monarchy in 1932. "Would you like your children to see a coup d'etat every eight years? No," Thanathorn said. "No one has mentioned this but enough is enough."

If his party were to take power, Thanathorn said the first job would be to move the military compounds out of Bangkok to ensure the generals stay out of politics. He also said the constitution that was drafted and adopted under the current regime should be scrapped.

Thanathorn believes it is high time to end the turmoil that has gripped the country for more than a decade, due to the deep divide between the largely poor and rural supporters of fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the Bangkok elites who oppose his brand of populism. The coup in May 2014, led by the current junta, toppled the elected government of Thaksin's younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

"If you look back over the past four years, all the resources of [Prime Minister] Prayuth Chan-ocha have been put into one cause and one cause only -- that is to destroy Thaksin's movement," Thanathorn said. "With this mindset, how can you think about the future? The cost we are paying is the economic progress of the country."

Thanathorn's emergence seems to be creating a tail wind for up and comers in established parties, too.

Varawut Silpa-archa is the son of former Prime Minister Banharn Silpa-archa. The 44-year-old is a former parliament member and belongs to the Chart Thai Pattana Party, a traditional force that has joined several coalition governments in the past. "It is wonderful that the country is paying attention to the younger-generation politicians," Varawut told Nikkei. "I have never seen something like this before in the entire Thai history."

Varawut, who was first elected at age 27, has a built-in defense against critics who say the young bloods lack political experience. His resume also includes an education in the U.K. and the U.S., as well as a period when he worked as a banker. He suggested that this background, coupled with his party's strong foothold in the central province of Suphan Buri, 100km north of Bangkok, enables him to "understand how the rural people think, how the urban think and how the international think."

Many of the young bloods hail from established, wealthy families but are keen to prove they can stand for wider interests. One such figure is Parit Wacharasindhu, the 26-year-old nephew of the leader of the Democrat Party -- the largest adversary to the Pheu Thai Party, with a history of over 70 years.

Parit is currently fulfilling his military service obligations. Though all Thai men are enrolled in the draft when they turn 20, the sons of rich and well-connected families often manage to avoid serving. Parit's uncle, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, was often accused of dodging the draft.

Parit is to complete his service later this year, in time to join the Democrat Party ahead of the general election now expected by February. He has pledged to become an agent of change for the party.

"The young bloods should be a source of hope, especially for young voters who want to see change," said Chaiyand Chaiyaporn, a lecturer in Chulalongkorn University's political science faculty. The next general election will be the first since 2011, barring a 2014 poll that was declared invalid, and millions of first-time voters are expected to go to the polls.

"The new wave is a good sign for politics in a country that has been dominated by the same faces for decades," Chaiyand said.

But real change may take time. Anusorn Tamajai, dean of the faculty of economics at Rangsit University, said the newcomers will have to back up their words with action to win real support.

"All parties say they want to decentralize power, but what will convince the voters is their ability to deliver," he said. Thaksin's Pheu Thai Party, for example, secured a large support base because it followed through on promised policies, such as universal health care and subsidies for rice farmers.

"Not that these policies are right or wrong, but it is an example of a strong brand, which maintains confidence among the voters," Anusorn said.

For a new party like Thanathorn's Future Forward, there is also the challenge of fielding enough candidates. There are 350 constituencies in the next election.

Thanathorn acknowledges the tough road ahead. "I totally understand the hurdles that we are going to face in the future if we push our course forward," he said.

"The next election will be only one battle in a long war. If we win it, we push, but if we don't, we will continue to build and work for the understanding of the people."

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