Young revolutionaries changing Thai Politics 2023

In a confined shophouse in one of Bangkok’s unremarkable outlying suburbs, a small group of volunteers packs leaflets frantically in preparation for the daily ritual of campaigning for votes.

Move Forward, the most radical party contesting this month’s general election in Thailand, has a campaign headquarters in Bang Bon that is decidedly low-rent.

Parliamentary candidate Rukchanok “Ice” Srinork, a 28-year-old woman overflowing with vitality, is pacing amongst them as she continuously scrolls through her social media pages. Ice’s team has been using inexpensive bicycles to reach out to the inhabitants of Bang Bon’s tiniest alleyways for weeks, despite the stifling heat.

Ice is one of a slate of youthful, idealistic candidates for Move Forward who have entered mainstream politics in the hope that this election will allow Thailand to break its decades-long cycle of military coups, street protests, and unfulfilled democratic promises.

Move Forward replaced Future Forward, a five-year-old Thai political party.

It contested the first election authorized since a 2014 rebellion deposed the previously elected government. Future Forward was novel, promising significant changes to Thailand’s political structures, such as limiting the authority of the armed forces, and, more subtly, suggesting changes to the monarchy, which was a taboo subject at the time.

According to Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies, “their main objective was to reclaim Thailand’s future from the ruling class.” “In this century, young people have been forced to live in a country that has been lost to an infinite cycle of coups, new constitutions, and judicial dissolutions of political organizations. I believe the younger demographic grew weary of it. Future Forward capitalized on this sentiment.”

It won the third-largest proportion of seats in the 2019 election, shocking conservatives. As it has in the past, Thailand’s royalist establishment, a network of military officers, senior administrators, and judges, had Future Forward dissolved by the Constitutional Court and its leaders forbidden from politics. The party lost about a third of its parliamentary representatives, and its substitute, Move Forward, became the only opposition voice in the legislature.

In recent weeks, however, the party’s popularity in opinion polls has surged once more, alarming competitors. According to numerous surveys, the charismatic and articulate Pita Limjaroenrat is the most popular candidate for prime minister.

This notoriety is altering how Ice and her bicycling volunteers are received in Bang Bon, the fiefdom of a powerful family from an opposing political party. Genuine interest exists in what these young people have to offer. Even senior citizens express the need for substantial change in Thailand.

This political landscape is exemplified by Ice herself. She confesses she was once a staunch royalist who supported the military rebellion and admired its leader, the current prime minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

“At the time, I agreed and thought it was best for the nation.”

She says, “I’m doing this in part because I feel guilty for being part of a movement that encouraged the coup, a crime against 70 million people.” “At the time, I concurred with it and believed it was the best solution for the nation. But later I wondered how that could have occurred. How could this country possibly sustain a coup? And that is when I turned into a taa sawang.”

Younger Thais use the term “Taa Sawang” – literally “bright eyes” – to characterize their enlightenment regarding previously forbidden topics, particularly the monarchy. It was the rallying cry of the massive protest movement that erupted in 2020 after Future Forward was outlawed, disenfranchising millions of younger electors ravenous for change.

And while the movement was ultimately defeated by the extensive use of the draconian lese majeste law, it broke the taboo by publicly advocating for the first time for the monarchy’s powers and finances to be held accountable. After three years, Move Forward’s support for regal reform is no longer as startling. And more Thais appear prepared to support the party’s broader reform agenda.

The journey of Chonticha “Kate” Jangrew has been in the contrary direction. Her “taa sawang” moment occurred when she was still in school.

She was among a very small group of dissidents who were prepared to risk detention in order to protest the 2014 coup that Ice was still celebrating. She also participated in the much larger, monarchy-focused demonstrations of 2020. Now, however, she has resolved to give up her activist work and compete as a Move Forward candidate for parliament. “I believe that to achieve the desired changes, we must work in both the legislature and on the streets,” she says.

Her appeal to electors in Pathum Thani, an additional district outside of Bangkok, is unconventional. “I have 28 criminal charges pending against me,” she informs them, of which two are for lese majeste, which entails a 15-year prison sentence. “However, this demonstrates that I have the courage to speak out when I believe something must be done for our country.”

Even senior voters appear to be captivated by her juvenile candor. Nearly everyone at the market where she appeared stated that they liked Move Forward because they stood for change and kept their word.

Few believe Move Forward will win enough seats to form a government, despite all the publicity they’ve received. The revised electoral system is less advantageous for them than it was previously. And because Thailand is an elderly society, voters under the age of 26 – the natural supporters of Move Forward – make up less than 15% of the electorate.

Nonetheless, if the party’s present surge in support continues until election day, they could do well enough to be part of a coalition government or a formidable voice of opposition. The question then arises as to whether the establishment will again employ its arsenal of extra-parliamentary schemes to disable the reformists.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak asserts, “The Move Forward party’s agenda poses an existential threat to Thailand’s established power centers, including the military, monarchy, judiciary, and the institutions and players who have governed Thailand for decades.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *