BANGKOK – Thai Auto Parts Billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit a staunch critic of the junta took third place in Thailand’s heavily disputed national elections has said he sees protesters returning to the streets if the military establishment escalates its campaign against the country’s opposition.
The auto parts tycoon-turned-politician, Thanathorn invigorated millions with his pledge to restore democracy to Thailand after launching the Future Forward party just a year ago. For the ruling military that wrested power from a democratically-elected government in a coup 2014, he’s been a threat ever since.
Even as the military continues to tighten its grip on the country, Future Forward is vying to form a government against the pro-junta Palang Pracharath party.
Authorities last month filed sedition charges against Thanathorn for allegedly providing assistance to an anti-military protest leader — a crime that carries with it a years-long jail sentence. The military government has said the sedition allegation isn’t a political case but rather has been made by the junta legal officer in a private capacity.
“I’m prepared for the worst. I’m not going to flee,” Thanathorn said on Wednesday from his office in a Bangkok skyscraper that carries the namesake of the family business. “But if they have some sense, they’re not going to persecute me. People need change and no one can stop that.”
As discussions over the formation of a coalition continue — months after the March 24 poll — it’s looking more likely that pro-military alliance led by Palang Pracharath could lead the next government. But there are fears an unruly and unstable coalition may struggle to survive, sparking fresh violence following the longest period of military rule in modern Thai history.
“When all options are exhausted and when parliament can’t function, there could be street protests,” said Thanathorn. “There’s nothing wrong with protesting, and protesting isn’t the equivalent of chaos.”
Thanathorn is leading a coalition with him as a prime ministerial candidate, though he faces disqualification from sitting in parliament after the Constitutional Court last week said it will consider a petition from the Election Commission calling to ban him altogether.
Just one of several cases against him, this relates to an alleged violation of rules that prohibit candidates from owning shares in a media company, which Thanathorn denies. In the meantime, he’s suspended from all parliamentary duties pending the court’s ruling.
His legal troubles do not end there. He and other Future Forward members face prosecution under Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act for allegedly spreading false information, accusations they deny. The military government has said the sedition allegation isn’t a political case but rather has been made by the junta legal officer in a private capacity.
Regional group Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights has meanwhile urged the Thai authorities to “end judicial harassment of opposition.”
“The Thai authorities’ pursuit of trumped-up criminal cases against Thanathorn and other anti-military actors is a clear attempt to undermine critics of the junta,” said Charles Santiago, Chair of APHR and a member of parliament in Malaysia.
Future Forward won about 16% of votes in the March election, drawing supporters from a mainly younger demographic as well as the base for exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, whose allies won the most seats in every election since 2001, only to be unseated by the courts or the military.
“It’s not a bright future ahead for the party,” said Prajak Kongkirati, head of the government and politics department at Thammasat University in Bangkok. The cases against him appear to be part of the attempt to weaken the party and to “create an environment that favors the pro-military faction.”
If the anti-junta coalition is unsuccessful in forming a government, Thanathorn said the bloc is willing to ride it out as the main opposition alliance.
“We’ll campaign harder next time. No one expected that we’ll win this term,” said Thanathorn. “Change can’t be achieved with just one election.”
By Philip Heijmans, Randy Thanthong-Knight