Thailand pokes the bear. Will Pita Limjaroenrat’s Move Forward victory evoke the leaps of change that voters are yearning for?

I will start with a quote by the soon-to-be-elected Prime Minister of Thailand, Pita Limjaroenrat. “People can simply be divided into two groups. Motors and anchors. Motors propel and push you forward, while anchors pull you down”.

Nothing describes the story of Thailand like these words he spoke during an interview with Prestige Magazine following his marriage with former Model Chutima Teepana in 2012.

Looking at its history, it is clear that Thailand has had its fair share of anchors and motors that rise up to propel and push the country forward.

The Monarchy

Since the transition to a constitutional monarchy in 1922, Thailand has had 20 constitutions, and 29 prime ministers, and witnessed 19 attempted coup d’etats, 12 of them successful. Yet in these turbulent times, the monarchy has been the pillar of Thailand and a symbol of pride and unity.

But this changed on October 13th, 2016, upon the death of King Bhumibol the Great: the beloved national hero revered by the majority of the Thai. His only son, now King Maha Vachiralongkorn, has found it very difficult to walk in the footsteps of his father, who was regarded as the Broker of Peace and Champion of Democracy in Thailand.

Thailand under King Vachiralongkorn is facing some familiar challenges; increased military control of the political system and ever-growing divisions in Thai society. The king who was educated in the United Kingdom, and at Australia’s Royal Military College holds high-ranking posts in the Thai Army, Navy as well as Air Force. The King has married 5 times and is a father to 7 children.

The Thai Monarchy is ranked among the world’s richest ones with an estimated 60 billion dollars. King Vachiralongkorn’s controversial lifestyle had pushed him further from his people who faced dire economic challenges, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. This put the country on the brink; creating a crisis that placed the monarchy and the whole country at a dangerous crossroads.

The 2020-2021 anti-monarchy protests

The youth took to the streets to demand the Thailand they desired; and put forward a 10-point manifesto aimed at reining in the palace’s far-reaching powers, including cuts to the royal budget and repeal of the brutal lese majeste laws (criticizing and defaming the monarchy) which many youth called draconian and unfair.

They summarized their demands into three:

  1. The Military Government must resign and give way to a civilian government
  2. A new constitution
  3. And reforms to the monarchy

They clearly sent their message by raising three fingers during the protests; the same salute used in the Hunger Games. A clear show of resolve and defiance in the struggle for the future of Thailand. The protestors sought reform, not revolution; and changes had to be made.

These protests laid the foundation for Pita Limjaroenrat’s unlikely victory in this year’s polls. Pita’s party, aptly named, “Move Forward”, maintained the hunger games salute, maintained the bright yellow and orange colors used by the protestors, and even had former leaders of the protests as party flag-bearers in multiple constituencies.

Thailand’s youth have poked the bear, and it is clear that this election is a continuation of the protests that shook Bangkok and the majority of Thailand in 2020 and 2021. But will the dangerous anchors of Thailand yield?

At least 218 people, including 17 minors, have been charged with royal defamation in Thailand since November 2020, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR).

More than half of the cases cited were related to online political expression, while about 45% stemmed from complaints filed by civilians, as the law allows individuals to bring lese majeste charges against others, according to TLHR.

The courts have repeatedly denied bail requests, and for those who have managed to get released on bail, their conditional liberty often comes along with a hefty bond and vague conditions that limit their freedom of expression and movement.

Who is Pita Limjaroenrat

Pita Limjaroenrat, Move Forward Party’s leader and prime ministerial candidate, poses for a picture during an upcoming election campaign event in Bangkok, Thailand, April 22, 2023. REUTERS/Chalinee Thirasupa

Pita Limjaroenrat has positioned himself as the motor of Thailand’s new generation yearning for freedom and liberty. He was born to a wealthy Thai family involved in politics. His father was an adviser in the agriculture ministry and his uncle was an aide of former ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra.

He was sent to school in New Zealand, which is when he developed an interest in politics. Pita graduated with a bachelor’s degree in finance from Bangkok’s Thammasat University, a master’s in public policy from Harvard University, and an MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Pita started his political career when he was elected to parliament in 2019 as a member of the Future Forward Party. Founded by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a billionaire and staunch critic of the army, the party performed well in the 2019 election, shaking up Thai politics with its demand for change.

But Future Forward was forced to disband the following year after contentious allegations. And Thanathorn was disqualified as an MP. Move Forward was formed soon after as its successor and named Mr. Pita its new leader.

Pita was a “rising star” of the Thai parliament where he gave critical speeches as an opposition MP and gained popularity with his party’s bold promises to break the military’s political influence and reform laws relating to the monarchy.

He wants to rewrite the constitution and has pledged to bring Thailand out of what he calls a “lost decade” under a military regime. His campaign promise: “demilitarise, demonopolize and decentralize”.

Speaking to journalists after his party he said that it was a new day for Thailand, full of bright sunshine and hope. He added that the sentiment of the era has changed. Voters rejected nearly a decade of army-backed rule, handing more seats and votes to Move Forward than any other party.

It is yet to be seen whether his vision of a more equal democratic and peaceful Thailand will come to life given that Thailand’s military still has the power to play kingmaker. But the win has put the spotlight on Pita and his party, who have built a strong following among young voters disillusioned by years of military rule and hungry for change.

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