The future according to Thanathorn: exclusive interview

The future according to Thanathorn: exclusive interview

Future Forward party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, centre, is greeted by supporters as he arrives for the registration of constituency candidates competing in the upcoming general election at Thailand-Japan Youth Center stadium in Bangkok,  Feb 4, 2019. (AP file photo)
Future Forward party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, centre, is greeted by supporters as he arrives for the registration of constituency candidates competing in the upcoming general election at Thailand-Japan Youth Center stadium in Bangkok, Feb 4, 2019. (AP file photo)

Speaking exclusively with the Bangkok Post, Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit outlined his vision of a just, democratic Thailand free from military hegemony, political and economic corruption and the world’s largest gap between rich and poor.

In the wide-ranging interview, Mr Thanathorn said he would slash military spending and the number of generals, end conscription, extend the welfare system and bring back Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra to face new trials. He said the charges he faced were politically motivated and would not succeed.

  • Watch the full interview below, and scroll down for the rest of the article.

The Future Forward Party -- Anakhot Mai -- was formed in 2018 by Mr Thanathorn, then Executive Vice President of the auto parts giant Thai Summit Group, and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, a Thammasat University law professor and prominent member of the Nitirat group of progressive legal academics.

The party’s first priority, Mr Thanathorn said, is to take on the military establishment that has launched 19 coups, 12 successful, since the establishment of constitutional monarchy in 1932.

“Future Forward has a policy to make coups d’états history,” he said. “We want to establish…that civilian government is above the army. 

“We have about 1,400 generals, more than almost every other country in the world...we want to reduce the size of the army. We’re talking about almost 400,000 officers…we want to cut that by half. We want to make military spending transparent and under the control of the civilian government. Also, we want to end compulsory conscription.”

 

One of the justifications for army rule has been the behaviour of politicians, who have often used their positions to enrich themselves and their supporters, acting more like Mafia dons than servants of the people. Asked how Future Forward would tackle political corruption, Mr Thanathorn pointed to his own party’s model. “Our MP candidates, 350 of them are new faces, none of them in the current patronage system. 

“We cannot rely on the existing politicians. You need a new force that is outside of this circle.”

Future Forward’s platform calls for the establishment of a universal welfare system, with pensions for the elderly, extension of health care to all citizens, completely free education and a commitment to lift every family above the UN-defined poverty line. Asked how this would be paid for, Mr Thanathorn cited cuts in military spending and higher taxes for the rich. “If you reform the military…the 60 billion baht we can save, we can spend on education, the well-being of young people. 

“We are planning to abolish the tax schemes that give the rich significantly lower effective rates of personal and corporate taxes...by reducing the tax privilege schemes for the rich, we are talking about 200 billion baht in [additional] tax collection.”

Asked whether the rich and powerful would we willing to pay more tax, Mr Thanathorn laughed. “We don’t know,” he said. “But it’s worth trying. For instance, if you own a house that’s worth 50 million Thai baht, you don’t have to pay tax on that. Only if you own a house worth 50 million and one baht, you’re supposed to pay 0.03% of that…about 15,000 baht per year. 

“And the number of people who own a house worth 50 million baht in Thailand – I don’t know, maybe, what, 10,000 people? Even less than that. The current tax on land and houses doesn’t in effect [function].

The fundamental issue, he argued, was inequality. “The gap between rich and poor in this country is basically the biggest in the world. Credit Suisse launched a paper last year…three years ago, Thailand used to be No.3…in 2018, we were No.1. 

“If we are not tackling this problem, I believe it will be very hard to heal the past wounds.”

The wounds he was referring to are the divide between the yellow shirts -- the conservative, pro-establishment camp vigorously opposed to Thaksin Shinawatra and the policies of his successor parties -- and the red shirts, the rural-based groups that supported his populist schemes to increase their income and provide public services. 

“The polarisation between the two camps has been ongoing for what, 12 years already,” he said. “The wound is deep... We believe the line was drawn falsely.

“We believe people, regardless of the colour of the shirt you wore, should come together as one and fight against the military regime.”   

Asked whether he would consider letting Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra back in the country, Mr Thanathorn paused for a sip of water.

“Here’s the point,” he said. “We believe that if you want to reconcile people…there is only one way. All the people have to be held accountable for what they did. Leaders of the red shirts, leaders of the yellow shirts, both of them have done things.

“The criminal charges against Khun Thaksin [were laid] under the military government…We are proposing to…get him back.

“Reopen the cases against him, and the judge has to be neutral…he has the right to a free and fair trial. And if the judgement [goes] against him, he has to accept it.

“I think that is the only way out. Leaders of both camps have to be held accountable for what they did in the past.” 

No single party is likely to win a majority in the March 24 election, and the mixed-member proportional representation system to be used will probably boost the performance of smaller parties at the expense of larger ones like Pheu Thai -- which, its supporters say, is a primary reason it was adopted in the 2017 constitution. Asked which parties he would be willing to work with, Mr Thanathorn said it would depend on whether they accepted two key principles.

“We would like to first end the continuation of NCPO power after the election. Second, we want to amend the 2017 constitution…we would not compromise on this. We can work with all the parties that can accept these two principles…if it be Pheu Thai, if it be the Democrat or other parties -- if they accept our proposal, we are willing to work with them.”

On whether the Democrat Party would accept that, Mr Thanathorn at first declined to comment, but then conceded, “It would be difficult.”

Over the past week, Future Forward and its leaders have been confronted with several legal challenges. Mr Thanathorn and two party executives face a complaint filed by the NCPO in connection with remarks they made live on Facebook on June 26 last year.

They claimed the NCPO was poaching former MPs for the pro-regime Palang Pracharath Party – and many did later defect. 

Mr Thanathorn said he was "not worried at all" about the charges. "Article 14 of the Computer Crime Act stipulates...that if you upload false information...that causes public panic, you can be charged," he said. "First of all it was not false information, it was public information that was circulated by many media organisations. Secondly, it caused no-one panic. 

"It is clear that this charge is politically motivated," he said. "This charge will have no effect."

Mr Thanathorn is facing another charge of uploading false information – which could see him banned form politics for 20 years – over a sentence on the Future Forward website that claimed he was the president of the Federation of Thai Industry from 2008 to 2012. In fact, he was the president of the organisation’s Nakhon Nayok chapter between 2007 and 2011. Mr Thanathorn said it was simply an editing error, and the information was corrected. 

On Feb 27, an activist asked the Election Commission to propose disbanding Future Forward, claiming Mr Thanathorn and party secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul had made several comments threatening to the constitutional monarchy.

Mr Thanathorn said all the legal challenges, and an apparent hate campaign on social media, were evidence that the military regime felt threatened. “They are terrified,” he said. “They are afraid of the anger of the people.”

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit is a complex and paradoxical figure, a socialist billionaire who ran a huge company while joining Assembly of the Poor demonstrations. Asked who the real Thanathorn is, he laughed.

“I hate big corporations,” he said. “But when my father passed away, my mother asked me to come back and run the family business, and I couldn’t resist her request. But the spirit of working for the better lives of the majority…that’s still inside me. 

“Last year, when I see that this country is hopeless, there is no way out of this political conflict, there’s no political parties out there that could represent our dreams, I decide that I have to come do this myself. 

“That’s who I am.”


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