Why you should care
Thailand’s youth are taking on the military government, one beer at a time.
Democracy is returning to Thailand for the first time since the 2014 military-led coup. Joining the lineup of political stalwarts and proxy appendages for the military junta ahead of elections this Sunday is Future Forward, a boldly progressive, social-media-savvy party founded by a billionaire. Among its legion of new faces is an outlaw. He’s not an exiled member of the political elite or a shamed member of the royal family, though. He’s a 30-year-old former lawyer who was busted for making craft beer.
Taopiphop Limjittrakorn, or Tao, is in many ways a typical millennial. Tall and affable, he loves internet memes and ’90s pop culture references. After earning a law degree from Thammasat University, Tao worked for a big Thai conglomerate for two and a half years, which, he says, took a toll on his soul. “I didn’t like it. I quit because I was taking land from poor people,” Tao says. After bailing on his law career, he made ends meet as a tour guide and spent most of his free time on his singular focus: making and drinking good beer. Until, that is, he was tapped by the Future Forward Party last year to run for Parliament.
Tao’s love for beer comes from his father, who used to live in Germany and raved about its beer culture. Tao remembers being fascinated by the fact that each village and town had its own brewery and style of beer. In Thailand only companies that produce at least 10 million liters of beer a year are permitted, effectively making local craft brewing impossible. Though imported craft beer is popular in cities like Bangkok, it’s also expensive. A small bottle of imported craft beer runs about $10, while $5 can buy you three large bottles of domestic brands like Chang and Singha at a 7-Eleven.
In much of the world, Tao would just be another hipster talking about species of yeast and using words like “mouthfeel.” But Thailand’s restrictive laws meant that when he was caught selling his home-brew, he had a choice to make. As in most any dealings with the Royal Thai Police, Tao could risk making his case in front of a judge, or give the cops a “gift” of 200,000 Thai baht (more than $6,000) — more than 20 times the maximum fine for the offense of selling beer without permission. Not having the money to bribe his way out of the situation, Tao spent the night in jail and pleaded guilty, paying a $150 fine.
If it were easy to file my own party, I would call it the Free Craft Beer and Marijuana Party!
He thought about leaving the country but instead became a “beer activist.” Leveraging the bit of celebrity status from his court case, he crowdfunded his own bars, including an odd spot in the Lat Phrao neighborhood called Bad Taste Cafe, with internet memes on the walls and fluorescent pink and purple lights on classical Roman-style busts for a look known as vaporwave. These projects were expensive, given the import duties stacked on every bottle and keg by Thai authorities. A chance meeting on his birthday last year with one of the members of the then nascent Future Forward Party convinced Tao to get into politics. “The only way to change the law is to be a lawmaker,” he says.
“I thought about [running for office] before the Future Forward Party,” Tao says at his home in Bangkok’s Thonburi neighborhood. “If it were easy to file my own party, I would call it the Free Craft Beer and Marijuana Party!”
“I believe Tao will be a good politician,” says Krit Kiatgigungwan, Tao’s friend from college and business partner in his post-arrest brewing operations, the Taopiphop Ale and Bar Projects. “Tao represents normal people that don’t have money and power,” Krit says, as opposed to politicians who don’t “breathe the same air” as the masses do.
Tao’s 22nd District stretches from the golden Wat Arun temple to the massive glistening glass and steel Iconsiam shopping center on the western bank of the Chao Phraya River. When he’s out campaigning, Tao avoids the tourist-fueled traffic jams by riding his bike, wearing a shirt and helmet in Future Forward’s signature bright orange.
Founded by billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, Future Forward’s reforms like universal welfare, deep cuts to the military budget and getting money out of politics make it sound like the Thai branch of America’s leftward-shifting Democratic Party. “We call it social democracy [when speaking to] foreigners,” Tao says. Socialism of any kind still has negative connotations in many parts of Southeast Asia. “Socialism means communism to them,” he says.
Within Thailand, the party talks about decentralizing the government and the struggle between prai (serfs) and amart (lords) without directly using the word socialism. The leftist image cultivated by Thanathorn and other party leaders is a target of opponents who claim Future Forward has ignored the country’s agricultural labor force of 22 million. Meanwhile, Thanathorn’s job-killing push to automate his auto parts manufacturing company and his poor handling of past labor disputes raise questions of whom his party is really fighting for.
But for many of the 7 million young Thais voting for the first time, Future Forward represents a radical solution to years of oppressive and corrupt military rule in a country with the highest income inequality in the world.
The run-up to the oft-delayed elections has played out like one of the country’s pulpy soap operas, rife with drama and controversy. Following the Thai Raksa Chart Party’s (Thai Save the Nation) nomination of the king of Thailand’s sister, Princess Ubolratana, as a candidate for prime minister, the king quashed the idea and the judiciary dissolved the party, which was linked to exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The annihilation of Raksa Chart has given Future Forward an advantage over the rest of the anti-military opposition. They have a chance, Tao says, if the election is conducted fairly.
“It’s not a regular vote under democratic rules,” says Pitch Pongsawat, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, “but a means for regime change, where the military rule is reborn to continue its power.” No matter how the election pans out, the military generals of the National Council for Peace and Order will appoint 250 senators whose votes will decide the kingdom’s next prime minister. While MPs will also have a say in the next prime minister, the appointed senators guarantee that any government will have a powerful pro-military bloc.
Undeterred, Tao has been working nonstop, conducting interviews with local press and going door to door in his district. “Campaigning is hard,” he says, running one hand over his face with an exasperated sigh, “it’s so hot and sunny!” Perfect weather for a cold beer.
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