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American Educated, Thai Billionaire Steps into Thailand’s Political Arena



Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the founder of Thailand’s Future Forward Party, looks on during the launch of the party in Bangkok, Thailand. – Photo Prachachat

BANGKOK – The Director of Thailand’s biggest auto parts group launched a political party in Bangkok on Thursday as an alternative to established parties, promising to bridge a festering political divide.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, 39, executive vice president and director of the Thai Summit Group launched the Future Forward Party in a part of Bangkok’s old Chinatown being revived with hip shops, restaurants and galleries.

Thanathorn said he hoped to appeal to younger voters and disenfranchised citizens.

“Give democracy a chance,” the graduate of New York University Stern School of Business said in English at the launch.

“We don’t need governance through guns,” he added in Thai, referring to the ruling military, which took power in 2014.

The launch comes two weeks after Thailand’s Election Commission opened registration for new parties, one of the first signs of a tentative return to democracy.

Thailand has been under military rule since a 2014 coup toppled an elected government.

Since the coup, the generals have banned political activity. They have also repeatedly delayed a general election with the latest date February 2019.

The country has been largely divided since a 2006 coup against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a businessman turned politician who gained a loyal following among rural voters but made enemies among the military-royalist elite.

The military’s intervention in 2014 was to topple a civilian government led by Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

Thanathorn’s uncle, Suriya Juangroongruangkit, held various senior positions in an earlier incarnation of Thaksin’s political machine, the Thai Rak Thai Party, and the youthful Thanathorn has been described by some as the “next Thaksin”.

But on Thursday he dismissed any suggestion of links to the self-exiled former telecommunications tycoon, saying he did not side with any existing group.
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the founder of Thailand’s Future Forward Party, smiles during the launch of the party in Bangkok, Thailand, March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

“We have our own stance,” he said.

A member of the Thaksin-backed Puea Thai party welcomed Thanathorn’s party as an alternative to old military-aligned parties for voters “sick and tired” of dictatorship.

“These voters may not want to vote Puea Thai but vote for this new party instead, which would be useful because they would be taking votes away from those that support dictatorship,” Watana Muangsook, a Puea Thai Party member, told Reuters.

Yuttaporn Issarachai, a political science lecturer at the Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University said the new party might attract a respectable number of voters from a new generation.

“It could be a mid-size party appealing to voters aged 18 to 25,” Yuttaporn told Reuters.

Critics of the junta say it has failed to deliver on its promises and that political divisions endure, while impatience with the stalled return to democracy grows.

Activists have defied a ban on gatherings to organize small protests while Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, 63, who as army chief led the 2014 coup, appears to be embarking on his own campaign to stay on as prime minister.

Thanathorn, whose family also has a major stake in the newspaper publisher Matichon Pcl, resigned from the board of that company on Wednesday but remains on the board of privately held Thai Summit.

Thanatorn did not list any party policies because formal political campaigning is still banned.

Among party co-founders he introduced were a film-maker and several gay rights and environmental activists.

Thanathorn said he hoped to win the support of “ordinary people”.

“People who are not famous … but who want to shape our country’s future together,” he said.

Aukkarapon Niyomyat, Chayut Setboonsarng – Reuters


Additional reporting Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Panarat Thepgumpanat, Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panu Wongcha-um

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