- By Jonathan Chief
- Southeast Asia reporter
In a cramped townhouse in one of Bangkok’s unassuming suburbs, a small group of volunteers are feverishly wrapping flyers in preparation for the daily vote rally.
This is the low-rent campaign headquarters in Bang Bon for Move Forward, the most radical party running in this month’s general election in Thailand.
Walking between them is the congressional candidate, Rukchanok “Ice” Srinork, an energetic 28-year-old woman who is constantly scrolling through her social media pages. Ice’s team bought cheap bicycles, and for weeks now they’ve been using them, in hot weather, to reach people in the tiniest alleys of Bang Bon.
Ice is one of a number of young, idealistic candidates for Moving Forward, who have entered mainstream politics in the hope that this election will allow Thailand to break the cycle of military coups. violence, street protests and broken democratic promises the country has been stuck in for two years. many decade.
Move Forward is the successor party to Future Forward, which exploded onto the political scene in Thailand five years ago.
It disputes the first election allowed since the 2014 coup that deposed the then-elected government. The future ahead is something new, promising far-reaching changes to Thailand’s political structure, including limiting the power of the armed forces and, more quietly, proposed changes to the monarchy, when it was a completely taboo subject.
“Their agenda is basically to take back Thailand’s future from the great powers,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, from the Institute of International and Security Studies at Chulalongkorn University. “In this century, young people have had to live in a country caught up in an endless cycle – we have two coups, two new constitutions, a series of judicial dissolutions of partisan. I think young people are sick and tired of that. And Future Forward has tapped into that sentiment.”
It stunned conservatives by winning the third-largest number of seats in the 2019 election. Thailand’s royal establishment, a network of military officers, high-ranking officials and judges, has react when they have faced similar threats in the past – the organization was dissolved by the Constitutional Court of Future Forward and banned its leaders from participating in politics. The party has lost about a third of its MPs and its replacement, Move Forward, has become the lone opposition voice in parliament.
However, in recent weeks, the party’s support in opinion polls has rebounded, raising concerns among opponents. Multiple polls have presented its leader, the bubbly and articulate Pita Limjaroenrat, as the preferred candidate for prime minister.
That popularity is changing the way Ice and her cycling volunteers are heading to Bang Bon, traditionally the territory of a powerful family from a rival party. People are really interested in what these young people have to offer. Even older residents speak of the need for major changes in Thailand.
Ice itself is the epitome of this changing political landscape. She admits she was once a radical royalist, had supported military coups and admired the coup’s leader, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who remains prime minister to this day.
“I think I’m doing this in part because I feel guilty that I’m part of a movement that promotes a coup, a crime against 70 million people,” she said. “At the time, I agreed with it and thought it was the right answer for the country. But then I asked myself, how is that possible? How can this country support it? a freak coup? And that’s when I became taa sawang.”
“Taa Sawang” – literally “bright eyes” – is a phrase used by young Thais to describe their enlightenment on previously taboo subjects, especially the monarchy. That’s the tagline of the mass protest movement that erupted after Future Forward was banned in 2020, and disenfranchised millions of young voters hungry for change.
And that movement, while it was eventually crushed through the extensive use of draconian law, broke the taboo, by publicly appealing for the first time to the power and financial resources. of the monarchy must be held accountable. Three years later, Move Forward’s support for royal reform no longer seems shocking. And many Thais seem willing to support the party’s broader change agenda.
Chonticha “Kate” Jangrew’s journey has gone from the opposite direction. Her “taa sawang” moment was much earlier, when she was still a student.
She’s part of a very small group of dissidents willing to risk arrest to protest the 2014 coup that Ice is still cheering for. She has also joined much larger protests, focusing on the monarchy in 2020. But now she has decided to give up her activist life and run as a candidate. member for Congress, also for Move Forward. “I believe that to achieve the changes we want, we have to work in parliament as well as on the streets,” she said.
It was unusual for her to address voters in Pathum Thani, another district outside of Bangkok. “I have 28 criminal charges against me,” she told them – two counts by law when military carries a penalty of 15 years in prison each. “But it shows you I have the courage to speak up when I see something that needs to happen for our country.”
Even older voters seem drawn to her youthful sincerity. Most people at the market where she appeared said they liked Move Forward, because they represent change and will keep their promises.
For all the rumors generated by Move Forward, few believe they can win enough seats to form a government. The revised electoral system is not more favorable to them than the last time. And Thailand is an aging society, so voters under the age of 26 – the natural supporters of Move Forward – make up less than 15% of the total electorate.
But if the party’s current surge in support holds through to polling day, it could do well enough to become part of a coalition government or a powerful opposition voice. Then the inevitable question arises – will the establishment use its arsenal of extra-parliamentary schemes to neutralize the reformers again?
Thitinan Pongsudhirak said: “The Forward party agenda is an existential challenge to established centers of power – the military, the monarchy, the judiciary, the institutions and the players that have controlled practice Thailand for decades”.
“Right now, they’ll probably wait for the poll results. But then conservatives will have to ask themselves, what else can they do? They disband parties, but they’ll come back.” , even more powerful. They had a military coup, but they had to go back to the constitution in the end. And even though they rewrote the electoral rules in their favor, their parties still lost the election. election.”