Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit on Thailand's protests: "No one knows where the limit is"

Thanathorn addresses supporters in Bangkok last December. Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty

Protests sparked earlier this year by the dissolution of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit's Future Forward Party have evolved into a massive youth-led movement that's rattling Thailand's establishment, including the once-untouchable monarchy.

What he's saying: "No one knows how this is going to end or where this journey is going to lead us," Thanathorn told Axios in a Zoom interview this week. “We would like to see a peaceful transition to democracy, but it’s not really up to us."

  • "If they’re not going to compromise, I fear that it might turn to violence," he says.

Background: Thanathorn has had a short and tumultuous political career since leaving the family business — Thailand's largest auto parts manufacturer — to co-found the Future Forward Party and challenge the ruling junta in 2019.

  • That election officially returned Thailand to civilian rule following a 2014 coup, but a new military-drafted constitution effectively guaranteed victory to the coup-leader-turned-prime-minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha.
  • It also launched a political star in Thanathorn, who drew big crowds of mainly young people to his anti-junta platform.

After Future Forward finished a strong third, the backlash began.

  • Thanathorn was swiftly ejected from parliament and barred from politics for 10 years. Then Future Forward was ordered to disband in February for allegedly breaching campaign finance rules.
  • That decision prompted an initial wave of protests, which resumed in July and have continued to grow larger. An estimated 50,000 people gathered in Bangkok on Sept. 19.

Student leaders are demanding constitutional reform and new elections, as well as protections for LGBTQ people and an end to corporal punishment in schools. Most shocking is their demand for reform of the monarchy.

  • “I think it’s the first time in many decades that people are challenging not only the political institutions, but they are challenging the cultural domination of the elite as well," says Thanathorn, who has attended several of the protests.

Between the lines: Thailand is a constitutional monarchy in which politics are constrained by the ever-present prospect of a military coup (they are more frequent in Thailand than anywhere else on Earth).

  • It's still illegal to criticize the king, despite the fact that he's seen by many as as profligate, eccentric and generally absent.
  • But that taboo is now being challenged on an almost daily basis, and each breach of the boundaries seems to reset the ground rules even as it risks a crackdown.
  • “No one knows where the limit is at this point in time,” Thanathorn says.
  • That uncertainty applies to him as well. "I might end up in jail, maybe six months, a year from now. No one knows. Maybe I will be dis-banned, if the democratic forces win the battle," he says.

Driving the news: Parliament delayed a decision last week on whether to amend the constitution, prompting yet more protests.

  • The message #RepublicofThailand was soon trending on Twitter, something Thanathorn says would have been unthinkable just months ago.
  • He thinks the plan for constitutional reforms to be overseen by an elected panel is "too dangerous" for the political elite to allow. “A constitution drafting committee elected by the people? No. They’re not letting that happen.”

What to watch: With the protests continuing to grow, he says the range of possible outcomes includes Prayuth's resignation, fresh elections or even another military coup.

His bottom line: “Even though there’s no clear path to democracy at this point in time — even though things look very dark … I think we are very hopeful in the sense that genuine democracy is achievable."

  • "For many decades, I think this is the moment where the possibility is at its highest.”

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