New-generation Thai politician says he is waging a 'war of ideas' that could take decades

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit outlined his "roadmap" for democracy in the kingdom: One that would start with an election, and lead to a referendum to amend the constitution, and then another referendum to approve a new Constitution that would eventua
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit outlined his "roadmap" for democracy in the kingdom: One that would start with an election, and lead to a referendum to amend the constitution, and then another referendum to approve a new Constitution that would eventually help "delete all the legacies" of the ruling junta.PHOTO: REUTERS

HANOI - Immaculately dressed in a grey suit, 39-year-old Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was at the tea break stand at the World Economic Forum on Asean when he partnered another young politician from Indonesia to talk about the need to upend the power dynamics of the region.

About a dozen people huddled before the two politicians, listening intently.

Later, Mr Thanathorn told The Straits Times that this was the first time he was attending the forum. He always thought it was for the "elite," said the scion of a wealthy car parts business family.

At the forum on Wednesday (Sept 12) , Mr Thanathorn, who burst onto Thailand's political scene this year with his Future Forward Party,  outlined his "roadmap" for democracy in the kingdom: One that would start with an election, and lead to a referendum to amend the constitution, and then another referendum to approve a new Constitution that would eventually help "delete all legacies" of the ruling junta.

The ruling generals have constantly been referring to their "roadmap" but polls remain elusive some four years after the military staged its latest coup. Thailand has endured a dozen military takeovers since 1932.

The outspoken father of three, who has said he is willing to become prime minister, is due to appear before police next week to hear a computer crime charge which could land him in jail for up to five years. This complaint was filed by the ruling junta - called the National Council for Peace and Order - over a Facebook live broadcast during which Mr Thanathorn was discussing the political situation at home.

He has described the charge as a "strategic lawsuit to threaten me, to silence me" and said he would not be cowed.

 
 
 

"I will continue to do what I have done before, regardless of what they plan to do," he told The Straits Times. "If there is one thing that the military junta is very successful in over the past four years, it is that it has created this politics of fear."

He added: "If I, of all people, start to surrender, start to show a sign of submission, the whole country will go back downwards."

Asked whether a party that has come to be so closely associated with him would survive if he was jailed, he replied: "I am very certain."

He said: "There will be people who will stand up and continue what I have started. So…there will be leaders, there will be followers."

Mr Thanathorn spoke of staging an ideological battle, saying that it was more than just fighting for votes, and that this "war of ideas" could take "decades".

"Coup d'etats do not happen in isolation. They are intertwined with other social forces, particularly conservative forces. In order to stop the military coup d'etat you also have to confront conservative cultures in Thailand, for example, the propaganda that is trying to convince people in Thailand that politics is dirty and people should not be involved in politics

"This very simple statement opens the door for undemocratic forces."

What if, despite all his efforts, there was another coup in Thailand?

He replied: "We have to convince the people that mass protest against military intervention is rightful."

Turning to matters away from home, Mr Thanathorn said that Asean was "in a mess" with the rise of authoritarian governments in the region. He was even cautious about developments in Malaysia, where a new Pakatan Harapan coalition government swept into power in the May general election.

"(It) is still yet unclear if the power transition is going to take place peacefully," he noted, referring to Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamed's promise to hand power to his former adversary Anwar Ibrahim.

Mr Thanathorn also said Asean needed to address social inequality issues.

"If you look at Asean as a whole, people talk only about the economic front. They believe only that a better economy will bring about a bigger middle class and a bigger middle class will demand change. That is wrong," he says. "You have to address human rights issues together."