Street Dissatisfaction Could Spell Trouble for Thai Junta

Popular party’s expulsion could trigger broader dissent

By: Jason Johnson

The decision by Thailand’s Constitutional Court to dissolve the opposition Future Forward Party and ban its executive board from politics for 10 years on what are regarded as dubious charges could serve as a trigger for a democracy movement that its advocates hope poses a threat to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his military establishment cronies.

The dissolution of FFP, as the party is known, is regarded in some circles as a sign that given the ruling junta’s razor-thin majority in the parliament, it could be brought down by a no-confidence vote. Getting rid of the FFP strengthens the junta’s parliamentary majority.

Still, some diplomatic sources say the former general’s tenure as prime minister is already on thin ice, with rumors circulating in recent weeks that he could be removed, or step down, soon after the mid-year reshuffle at the end of April.

That possibility could gather significant steam should a democracy movement propelled by former Future Forward leaders expand and the ousted leaders seek to mobilize support for their anti-military campaign. The ejected opposition party’s persistent position that the country is in dire need of military reform recently galvanized support when a rogue army sergeant was able to easily steal weapons from an army base and go on a killing rampage that left 29 dead in the northeast province of Nakhon Ratchasima in early February.

Sources say the banned politicians may provoke further support from Thais from across the economic spectrum who blame military-led rule for the country’s sagging economy. The government has already faced a chorus of criticism for its mismanagement of the Coronavirus situation, and the National Economic and Social Development Council has lowered its 2020 forecast to a range of 1.5-2.5 percent. The economy is regarded as one of the most vulnerable in Asia to the virus.

The disbanding of FPP may also curtail foreign investment. For several months there have been rumors that if the progressive party, which captured some 6 million votes in a March 2019 election, would be dissolved, the European Union (EU) would pull a free trade agreement off the table.

Certainly, the military, backed by the country’s wealthiest business elites, is an overwhelming presence against large-scale dissent. Its control over the Internet and repressive laws make open communication difficult, and many opponents of the military were driven from the country or jailed in the wake of the 2014 coup.

Future Forward leaders had stated or indicated multiple times that should the party, which consisted of mostly young MPs, be dissolved, they would initiate a social movement. Immediately after the court’s ruling, former secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul told reporters that he and the 41-year-old Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a political aristocrat connected to the country’s biggest auto parts manufacturer and several establishment figures, would “tirelessly continue political campaigns across the country.”

On February 22, a flash mob at the hands of the disbanded party appeared at Thammasat University, then on Sunday, former spokesperson Pannika Wanich held another event in which she accused Prayuth’s government of illegally aiding former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who faces corruption charges in the 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal, in which US$4.8 billion disappeared from theft and mismanagement from the state-backed investment fund.

In recent months, Future Forward was known to have been actively mobilizing supporters in Thailand’s provinces in what some security officials believe reflected an effort to kick-start a large-scale, nationwide democracy movement should the party be dissolved.

Thailand’s long-term military dominance over the state has long been resented and contested by masses of rural supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup, and some others. However, the bulk of those supporters hailed from the northeast and the north, populous regions but not the geographical center of Thai authority, Bangkok.

Until recently many Bangkokians and Thais from the upper south stood against electoral authority because Thaksin-aligned parties dominated the electoral playing field. When then army chief General Prayuth staged a coup to remove Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck from power in 2014, Bangkok’s elites were supportive or indifferent to the ouster of her elected Pheu Thai government. Indeed, in late 2013 and early 2014, many fully endorsed the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) movement, which asked for and received the arch royalist Prayuth’s military intervention.

Fast forward some six years and dispositions towards military rule and intervention have changed significantly. In a January anti-military government event in Bangkok called the “Run Against Dictatorship,” some former PDRC supporters took to the stage to say how they have had a change of attitude and now had become staunch advocates of progressive, democratic change.

Even some Bangkok-based and southern Thailand-based supporters of Future Forward told Asia Sentinel that past animosities towards Thaksin and his Red Shirt supporters, the primary proponents of electoral authority over the past 15 years, have dissipated significantly among former establishment supporters turned Future Forward supporters.

Still, many older establishment supporters still firmly back Prayuth and his Palang Pracharat Party. Yet, with persistent rumors that current army chief Apirat Kongsompong could somehow replace Prayuth, it is questionable how long an older generation of Thais may back military-dominated governance.

Apirat seemingly does not have the popular support of Prayuth and may even lack support within the military. Following the army chief’s bizarre speech in October in which he seemingly suggested that Future Forward leaders and supporters were communists, there were reports that a colonel wrote a letter condemning Apirat and announcing that he quit the military. (Military sources later claimed the letter was not real.)

For any Thai democracy movement to be successful, it will require not only former establishment supporters but also establishment elites. In the 1992 pro-democracy movement, royalist General Chamlong Srimuang provided core leadership and gave added legitimacy to Bangkokians who, at the time, similarly sought to remove the military from politics.

That democracy movement was the last time the Bangkok middle class stood up against military rule. Some 200,000 Thais rallied and hit the streets in a democracy movement that not only resulted in the removal of General Suchinda Kraprayoon’s government but also towards the country’s most progressive democratic reforms, culminating in the 1997 constitution.

At this stage, the democracy movement led by Future Forward leaders lacks outward support from military establishment elites that could dramatically bolster the movement’s democratizing and demilitarizing efforts. However, Thanathorn and his allies have already made substantial headway by not only bringing on board many young urbanites but even turning some former critics of Thai democracy into adamant supporters of democratic change.

The dissolution of Future Forward seemingly suggests that the military stands firm atop in Thailand, but signs already indicate that its legitimacy is in sharp decline.