From protests to polls: Power in the hands of Thailand’s youth ahead of Sunday vote

From protests to polls: Power in the hands of Thailand’s youth ahead of Sunday vote

Thanathorn
Thanathorn Jungrungreangkit making his final pitch to voters in Bangkok on Mar 22. (Photo: Jack Board)

BANGKOK: It was the lineup of speakers at the Future Forward Party’s final pre-election rally in Bangkok on Friday (Mar 22) that was emblematic of a movement turbocharging young people in Thailand.

In a nation stuck in a political malaise for years, a recipe of of inclusiveness, diversity and hope is a bold step away from a status quo that has left many of the nation’s youth feeling disenfranchised.

While Thanathorn Jungrungreangkit is the party’s leader and rockstar-like attraction, around him on Friday night voices of the marginalised, fringe and underrepresented were elevated alongside his.

Beginning with a transgender candidate, the programme brought forward a speaker with a disability, of an ethnic minority, a labour movement and six others from the different major geographic regions of Thailand.

Future Forward
A young girl delights in the electioneering at the final Future Forward rally in Bangkok. (Photo: Jack Board)

Far from polished orators, the candidates brought their own credibility and passion, their stories ignited and encouraged by an enthusiastic and diverse crowd of all ages.

“I wasn’t really invested in politics before. I simply voted for the party that my parents told me to vote for in the previous election. I am now personally invested,” said rally attendee, Panurut Chatuchinda, 25.

“When I was growing up, I’ve only seen a couple of major political parties squabbling, so having a new party with a solid commitment and strength made me want to support them,” said Patcharapon Poomarun, 19.

Thanathorn himself is somewhat of an unlikely figure to be leading an everyman campaign. Part of the elite, the 1 per cent, the billionaire has been able to so far navigate the fraught nature of Thai’s political environment. His opponents have grown increasingly wary of a candidate promising a brave new world to a starved population.

His message since launching Future Forward just one year ago has been one of empowerment, decentralisation and of ending conflict and division. A party slogan reads: “The future we aspire to is a future where the ultimate power truly belongs to the people”.

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Thanathorn has emerged as a surprise prime ministerial candidate on a progressive platform (Photo: Jack Board)

He once again riffed on the same themes in his final presentation to the people.

"I will not pass a society like this on to my daughter. I will not pass a society like this on to your son. We will not pass on a society like this on to the future generations,” he said.

"This kind of future could not be built with an authoritarian system with centralised power that is not based on the truth. 

"History told us over and over again that countries that used fear of authoritarianism would all end in the same way: a civil war. Enough with shooting people in the middle of the city without anyone taking responsibility. Enough with the incompetent education.

"Therefore, democracy is not just an option, but the only option left for Thailand."

Thanathorn has successfully brought with him an equally improbable collection of followers together to form a united front yearning for democratic upheaval.

Some of them are controversial, most are completely inexperienced, but they bring with them that same hunger for change.

‘MY JOB IS NOT FINISHED’

Rangsiman Rome’s political awakening came on the streets. Since the inception of the military coup he has been an agitator for the junta, or as he describes it, “a witness to the regime”.

Rangsiman has been one of the faces of a youth-driven resistance, a next generation wave unwilling to accept submission to an undemocratic regime. He has rallied in a time where intransigence has been met with force, of both a physical and legal nature.

He was at the forefront of the “no campaign” in August 2016 when Thais were asked in a referendum to decide on the military’s proposed new constitution, seen by critics as a tool to further cement the military’s power.

Rome activist Future Forward
Rangsiman Rome has exchanged street activism for running for office. (Photo: Jack Board)

Rangsiman, no stranger to police attention, was arrested for handing out information flyers. Since then, maturing as an activist but still present as a protester, he began to concede defeat, of sorts.

“Finally, I failed. I cannot change the government. We are still under the military regime. I reached the conclusion myself that the pressure from the people is not enough,” he said.

It was the beginning of his transformation, away from a street firebrand to a possible member of parliament. He joined FWP to elevate his message, a conflicted decision that had some of his supporters questioning his motivations.

“It wasn’t easy easy for me to decide. Some relationships are not the same as before. Sometimes to move forward, you lose something. You have to decide to move forward, or be in the comfort zone.

“Why did I decide this? It’s because my job is not finished.”

There is a sense of a youthful groundswell building in the lead-up to this election. There are 7.37 million new voters poised to have their say on Sunday.

Rome activist Future Forward (1)
Rangsiman Rome was a vocal activist against the military junta.

Rangsiman says young people have always had power - even under military rule when for five years there were no elections and political gatherings were outlawed - but maybe just did not realise it.

In any event, now is the time for them to use their influence, he says, and reject the older structures that have “failed’ Thailand in recent times. He does not accept the widely circulated criticism that Thailand’s youth are naive about their aspirations. Nor, does he believe a lack of experience is a disqualifier for him or his party colleagues.

“Now the young generation is the key to change. A lot of people think this group don’t want to vote, they don’t care, but now most of them will go to vote and they are active citizens,” he said.

“They are important for the economy, and they are important for the future. When they speak out, it’s loud. We are not just the present, we are the future too.

“The country belongs to us too, I just think about that. If the country belongs to us, why do we have less voice than other people? Maybe, yes, we don't have the same experience as them. But they failed. If we have KPIs, they failed. Look at today. We live under the military regime.”

His language suggests a party united by a desire for democracy, but whose diversity extends to the future direction of the country.

But those differences of opinion can be kicked down the road and worried about later while energy is poured into the main objective.

On Friday, the medley of voices was being celebrated by the party and its supporters, as they anticipated the potential dawn of a return to a real democratic state.

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There are more than seven million first time voters for this election, many of whom are expected to vote for FWP. (Photo: Jack Board)

KINGMAKERS?

While it is unlikely that Future Forward will win any strategic areas around Thailand, a new electoral system means that the best ‘losers’ can greatly benefit. In a country where political colours are regionally clear, Thanathorn should enjoy a moderate level of support everywhere.

Being representative to voters from the north to the south and in both urban and rural areas could prove to be not only inclusive politics, but an acute strategy.

Political analyst Dr Pitch Pongsawat from Chulalongkorn University has downplayed the power of young people in this election, yet is bullish about the type of influence Thanathorn might yield in a future parliament.

The system changes fashioned by the military to target and disadvantage Thaksin Shinawatra and his Pheu Thai Party could end up backfiring in a surprising way, he says.

“The miracle for Future Forward is the structural loophole concerning the electoral law,” he said.

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Voters enthusiastically supporting speakers at Future Forward's final rally on Mar 22. (Photo: Jack Board)

“The powers that be never realised they would get people and a party like Thanathorn. He might lose every seat in every area. In the previous system he might have got nothing.

“But all of his votes are valuable, not just because it’s young people. The loser with substantial vote in every area will get a lot of seats. Just wait for the result.”

Thanathorn has been talked up as a possible kingmaker, whose seats might deliver the Pheu Thai party the prime ministership. Dr Pitch believes FWP could end up with as many as 100 seats in the 500-seat parliament.

Many supporters at the rally on Friday were impatient for change. Uncertainty hangs over this election and Thailand’s immediate future - it is expected that a power struggle will ensue in the coming days and weeks depending on how the vote unfolds.

Future Forward could easily find itself an irrelevance. It is undeniable though that Thanathorn and his party have changed the national conversation.

"We are the people who will not live in this kind of society. We said we will build a good society for our descendants,” Thanathorn said. "We are the people who will not wait for change, or just look at the change happening. We would like to change the society with our own hands.”

“Our journey will start on March 24th. This is the new future that will dawn on every single Thai."

Source: CNA/jb

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