Thailand’s freshest political face, the scion of a billionaire Bangkok family, could easily have kept his executive job at his family’s auto parts business and lived off his wealth. But “how could I be happy doing that?” asks Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. “Millions of people out there are not free.”
Instead, Thanathorn, 39, has plunged into Thai politics, which has powered back to life after a nearly four-year hiatus. He is one of a new generation of young politicians, who are taking advantage of an easing of strict rules governing political activity to register their parties ahead of possible elections next year.
Thanathorn and the other newcomers — collectively nicknamed the “young bloods” — have begun to air their views on social media and to sit for interviews. In so doing, they are venturing into a legal gray zone in a country ruled by a military junta where unauthorized political gatherings are illegal. “If we do too much, we cross the line, but if we don’t do anything, we will lose the election,” Thanathorn says. “We don’t know where the law is; they never tell us. I think they prefer to keep it unclear.”
Sometimes you have to do something that is politically unpopular but correct, otherwise no bar would be raised.
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, Thai politician
Already, pundits are comparing Thanathorn to French President Emmanuel Macron, who channeled popular disgust with legacy parties and swept to power last year. He has shown himself unafraid of taking bold stands. In a recent Facebook post, he called for Thailand to take a bigger role in resolving the crisis in Myanmar, including by taking in Rohingya Muslim refugees arriving by boat — an unpopular view in a conservative, majority Buddhist country.
“Of course we should help them, we should give them a hand,” says Thanathorn. “It’s purely because of the color of their skin, their different faith [that] they are not allowed here.”
He adds: “Sometimes you have to do something that is politically unpopular but correct, otherwise no bar would be raised.”
Thailand’s military government, which seized power in 2014, has repeatedly postponed the return to democracy. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the junta leader, has promised to hold the election by February 2019, but previous similar pledges have been postponed, prompting democracy demonstrators to taunt him with Pinocchio masks at one protest in February.
If he ever does take power, Thanathorn has promised to send the military back to the barracks, ease political censorship, spread economic opportunity to rural areas and work with other parties to restore democracy to a country that has seen frequent coups.
The “young bloods” are counting on tapping into public disenchantment with Thailand’s two-party stalemate, which in the past pitted “Redshirt” supporters of exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and, later, his sister Yingluck against their “Yellowshirt” opponents. “I want to be a part of a new generation that sets new standards for Thai politics,” Parit Wacharasindhu, another young politician, told a recent packed news conference in Bangkok also attended by Thanathorn.
“People whose voices haven’t been heard by the two parties might be the cause of the emergence of parties that are more progressive and for the younger generation,” says Siripan Nogsuan, associate professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University. “There are about 7 million people who have never voted, and will be available for small and medium-size parties to grab.”
However, Thanathorn and the other young bloods may struggle, given Thailand’s constitution, drafted after the coup, that analysts say will allow the military continued sway over politics.
Many Thais doubt that their dysfunctional political culture, marred in the past by corruption, backroom deals and sporadic violence, can be mended.
“It’s good to see a new generation, and new faces entering the arena,” Varawut Silpa-Archa, another Thai politician, said of Thanathorn. However, he added, “I don’t think Thailand is ready for a prime minister as young as Justin Trudeau or Emmanuel Macron.”
Most of the new politicians setting out their stalls are products of the old establishment, with inherited wealth or family ties to former government figures.
Thanathorn is a nephew of a former transport minister. Varawut, who joined him at a recent briefing for journalists, is the son of a former prime minister; Parit is the nephew of another ex–prime minister. When challenged on his inherited wealth and privilege last week, Thanathorn insisted, “I come from the 1 percent, but I’m standing for the 99.”