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Thanathorn: Thai political disruptor remains a book in progress

Success of his pro-democracy quest hinges on learning from Thaksin's mistakes

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit heads to a news conference in Bangkok on Jan. 21 after a Thai court ruled in favor of his Future Forward Party. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

BANGKOK -- The recent ruling by Thailand's Constitutional Court to keep alive the fortunes of the country's second-largest opposition party and its charismatic leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, made headlines both at home and abroad.

How this young billionaire is disrupting Thai politics marks a new phase in the country's struggle toward a stable democracy. And whether he can avoid the same fate as erstwhile reformer Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister-turned-fugitive, remains unclear.

The court's decision secured the survival -- at least for the time being -- of the newly formed Future Forward Party, which stormed onto the political scene as a major opposition force in the 2019 elections. Founded in 2018, the FFP won 80 of 500 lower house seats in last March's general election, becoming the third-largest parliamentary bloc.

Finding no concrete evidence to support allegations that the FFP was trying to overthrow the constitutional monarchy, the court on Jan. 21 decided not to dissolve the party. The accusations were part of a petition filed by a former adviser to the chairman of the Ombudsman's Office.

The accusations stem from the party platform, which asserts that "democracy is based on the constitution." But Thailand's government institutions are based on "democracy under the king, who is head of state."

Moreover, in remarks that seemed to support the allegations of sedition, the 41-year-old Thanathorn said he hoped to see the Siamese revolution of 1932, which transformed the country from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy, come to completion.

Regarded as potential disruptors of the status quo, the FFP and Thanathorn regularly make the headlines in Thailand, which has been rocked by political upheaval since the turn of the century.

The Constitutional Court has traditionally been under the thumb of the country's conservative factions, including the army and royalists. It typically rules against emerging political groups that have confronted conservatives, whose archenemy remains former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The military staged a coup against Thaksin in 2006 and forcefully ousted a pro-Thaksin government in 2014. Since then, conservatives have been using the court as a tool to keep pro-Thaksin forces from regaining power.

Now, the conservatives are squaring off against the scrappy FFP.

Thanathorn is hugely popular. In an opinion poll conducted at the end of 2019 by the National Institute of Development Administration, 31% of respondents tabbed him as best qualified to be prime minister, ahead of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the junta leader, at 23%. He was followed by a surprisingly large 17%, who said there was nobody qualified for the job.

The young firebrand has called for cuts in military spending and ending conscription to reform the military, which has a long history of intervening in politics, often violently.

After the U.S. assassinated Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani using a drone, Thanathorn caused a stir by saying the attack showed that Thailand's "outdated" conscription system is unneeded.

Thanathorn is part of the family that founded Thai Summit Group, a midsize conglomerate with annual sales of 80 billion baht ($2.6 billion) and the country's largest auto parts manufacturer. In Forbes' list of Thailand's 50 richest persons, his mother, Somporn Juangroongruangkit, president of the group, was ranked 30th with total assets estimated at 34.1 billion baht.

Thanathorn speaks to reporters at an anti-government rally in Bangkok on Jan. 12. (Photo by Masayuki Yuda)

Thanathorn was born in 1978, the year after Thai Summit was founded. His grandparents immigrated from China to Thailand and struggled to earn a livelihood, according to Thanathorn. "When I was a child, my family was not as wealthy as now," he said. His parents taught him that he should "do something for social justice."

As the student union leader at prestigious Thammasat University, he confronted a range of social problems. Once, he protested against the damage caused to the local fishing industry by the Pak Mun dam in Ubon Ratchathani Province, the northeastern part of Thailand, leading to injuries from a skirmish with police.

After studying in Britain, Thanathorn worked for an NGO for the poor and suffering people but joined the family business after his father's death in 2002. He later became Thai Summit's vice president.

Not all agree on his business acumen. Among these are some executives of Japanese automakers, which account for 60% of group sales. One describes him as a "passionate businessman who places great value on keeping in touch with what's happening on the shop floor."

But another takes a dim view of his business credentials, saying Thanathorn is just a "well-bred young man" and adding that the mother is the one to talk to when there are important business matters to be discussed, instead of Thanathorn.

Still, group sales soared 400% during the 15-plus years he has been involved in management.

Even after joining the company, Thanathorn remained interested in social problems and frequently took part in demonstrations organized by the pro-Thaksin camp.

His support of Thaksin may be due to the former prime minister having been lauded as the first Thai premier to make serious efforts at alleviating poverty. He also appears to have been influenced by his uncle, current Industry Minister Suriya Jungrungreangkit, who once served as deputy prime minister in the Thaksin government.

Business tycoon. Vocal critic of the old guard. Charismatic leader with a cultlike following. Thanathorn has all the hallmarks of a second Thaksin.

Still, he brushes off comparisons. When asked about his view of Thaksin, Thanathorn said the former premier "was good in terms of implementing policies that he promised during the election campaign. However, he was too aggressive and abused his power."

Thaksin was criticized for showering favors upon his family and business associates. Indeed, he used his democratically earned political power in a not-so-democratic way. Hence, when entering politics Thanathorn shunned pro-Thaksin elements in favor of creating "a new centrist party... [that] aims to resolve the bitter rivalry between the pro- and anti-Thaksin camps," he said.

But the election that earned Thanathorn his political capital failed to produce the results he envisioned.

Thaksin followers typically cast ballots for the center-left Pheu Thai, while anti-Thaksin voters support the center-right Democrat Party. These two mainstream parties suffered a drubbing in the election, while support for pro-military Palang Pracharat Party and the anti-military FFP surged. But because the PPP and FFP are political opposites, the nation's divide has only deepened.

Against this backdrop, the old guard is trying to tighten the noose around Thanathorn.

In November 2019, the Constitutional Court disqualified him from parliament over accusations that he breached media shareholding rules intended to ensure a level political playing field. And despite dodging sedition charges, Thanathorn is fending off a slew of other attacks, among them an election commission demand that the FFP be dissolved over loans it received from Thanathorn.

Thaksin was ousted by a military coup in 2006, then jumped bail and fled overseas in 2008. That same year, he was convicted in absentia over a corrupt land deal and sentenced to prison. But the self-exiled leader still wields significant influence over Thai politics.

If his party is disbanded, Thanathorn may have to take a page from Thaksin's book and wage his political battles from outside government -- an increasingly likely prospect. At the end of 2019, he had already organized an anti-government protest in central Bangkok that attracted 10,000 people, making it the largest public rally since the 2014 coup.

Anti-government "red shirt" protesters gather in Bangkok's main shopping district on April 16, 2010.    © Reuters

The situation today is reminiscent of 2010, when the National United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship, or Red Shirts, took to the streets to protest against the Democrat Party-led government. The group called for then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve parliament for snap elections. Tens of thousands of protesters occupied central Bangkok for more than two months.

In the end, the government cracked down on the protesters, leading to more than 90 deaths and the government still firmly in place.

Thanathorn is not so naive to think that anti-government rallies will force a change in the political landscape.

There is no doubt, however, that he has the savvy to shake up Thai politics, which have been plagued by bitter conflict between the pro- and anti-Thaksin camps for nearly two decades.

Unlike Thaksin, who took advantage of the public trust for personal gain, Thanathorn seems to be a sincere advocate of democracy -- at least for now.

The question is how deep his message will resonate in a politically weary country that is also beginning to feel squeezed economically. And even if public support for Thanathorn strengthens, it is unclear what form it will take.

The Constitutional Court is expected to rule in another case against Thanathorn as early as this month. The court's decision may serve as a litmus test regarding the health and resiliency of Thailand's democracy.

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