The last stand of the dinosaurs
The Move Forward party's stunning election victory has changed Thailand forever. The traditional elite will try everything they can to keep them out of power.
A Thai language version of this article is available here.
“I am Pita Limjaroenrat, the next prime minister of Thailand,” declared the 42-year-old leader of the progressive Move Forward party in a speech to cheering supporters after winning a stunning victory in the May 14 general election. “The people of Thailand have already spoken their wish, and I am ready to be the prime minister for all of you whether you agree with me or you disagree with me.”
Move Forward shocked the Thai establishment with its unexpected victory, winning 14.4 million party list votes, representing 38 percent of the electorate. The party performed remarkably well in Bangkok, winning 32 of the capital’s 33 constituencies. Overall they won 151 seats. The result was all the more remarkable because unlike all other major parties, Move Forward did not engage in vote buying and bribery, and did not rely on patronage networks to win support.
In second place was Pheu Thai, which had been widely expected to win a landslide but ended up being eclipsed by Move Forward. Pheu Thai got 29 percent of party list votes cast, and fared well in constituency elections, giving it 141 seats.
Move Forward and Pheu Thai both campaigned on a platform of decisively ending the influence of the “uncles” who seized power in a coup in 2014 — Prayut Chan-ocha and Prawit Wongsuwan. Their combined party list vote share of 67 percent shows that an overwhelming majority of Thais — two thirds — have rejected the ruinous rule of the dinosaurs and want real democracy.
But as Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor of international relations at Chulalongkorn University wrote in an article for Nikkei Asia: “The new dawn that Thai voters endorsed last month is being vehemently resisted by an entrenched old political order.”
He added: “Powerful saboteurs are at work to stymie Move Forward's comprehensive agenda to start unwinding Thailand's monarchy-centered sociopolitical hierarchy and move toward greater egalitarianism and reform of traditional power centers to unleash competitive economic forces and talents that have been held back for so long. The military and monarchy are now at the front and center of where debate and action will take place.”
Unfortunately, the dinosaurs remain unwilling to face reality. They will not give up without a fight.
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Fake it till you make it
Pheu Thai was stunned that Move Forward consigned it to second place, but the party quickly expressed support for Pita to become prime minister and said it would not seek to form a rival coalition.
“We are glad that MFP got the majority of seats, and we are willing to support them to form the government,” Pheu Thai leader Cholnan Srikaew told a news conference the day after the election.
Six smaller parties were recruited to join the coalition — Prachachart, Thai Sang Thai, Seri Ruam Thai, Fair, Palang Sangkhom Mai and Pheu Thai Ruam Phalang — to create a formidable bloc with 312 seats in the 500-member parliament.
Pita and the coalition moved swiftly to start preparing for power. A transition team was established with representatives from all eight parties to oversee the process of becoming the government of Thailand.
The coalition parties agreed on a 23-point Memorandum of Understanding setting out their policy priorities. It was unveiled at a packed news conference at the Conrad Hotel on May 22, a date chosen because it marked the ninth anniversary of the 2014 coup in which Prayut and Prawit overthrew the democratically elected Pheu Thai government of Yingluck Shinawatra and seized power for themselves, presiding over nearly a decade of political repression, rampant corruption and economic stagnation which voters have now decisively rejected.
This graphic from the Bangkok Post lists the 23 points:
Two contentious issues were left out of the Memorandum of Understanding. One of the core aspirations of Move Forward is reform of the lèse-majesté law, Article 112 of the criminal code of Thailand, so that criticism of the monarchy is met with a proportionate response rather than wildly draconian sentences, and only the Royal Household Bureau can raise complaints about alleged breaches of the law, in contrast to the current situation in which anyone can make a lèse-majesté allegation and the law is widely abused.
However, reform of lèse-majesté is a highly sensitive issue in Thailand and even though many politicians privately support it, no other party has been brave enough to express support for amending the law. According to a leaked US cable, Thaksin Shinawatra told ambassador Eric John in a phone call from exile in 2008 that one of his priorities “was the need to remove lese majeste provisions from the criminal code; Thailand could not rightfully claim to be democratic so long as there remained a threat of prosecution for lèse-majesté”. But the public stance of Pheu Thai is to oppose any change to the law, and all other parties aside from Move Forward have the same position. The issue is just too politically controversial for them to dare call for reform.
Like all parties in the coalition, Move Forward committed to ensuring that no government policies undermined the position of the monarch or Thailand’s system of constitutional monarchy, but Pita also said the party would press ahead with efforts in parliament to reform Article 112, although other coalition partners were not obliged to support the initiative. (In fact, Thailand is not a constitutional monarchy because of the vast power and constant meddling of the palace, and reform of lèse-majesté would actually bring the kingdom closer in line with true constitutional monarchies around the world.)
Move Forward also wanted to include a commitment to an amnesty for people prosecuted for political reasons, but this was left out at the request of Pheu Thai. Party leaders were concerned that it could appear they were still fixated on getting Thaksin back to Thailand (which indeed they are) rather than focusing on bigger issues and problems. The last time Pheu Thai attempted to implement an amnesty, in 2013, it was seized upon by far-right royalists as a pretext for mass street protests that culminated in the 2014 coup.
The coalition set up 14 committees to start discussions on how to achieve its policy agenda. Pita himself is leading the transition committee overseeing the transfer of power from the old government. Other committees are dealing with rising electricity and fuel prices, the impact of drought and weather disruption caused by El Niño, violence in the deep south, constitutional changes, air pollution and environmental problems, the economy, digital development, ending corruption, public health, economic and social inequality, and land reform.
Move Forward is determined to make a difference and build a better Thailand, and it’s admirable to see the energy and urgency they are already devoting to achieving their goals, a stark contrast with the incoherent and lethargic approach of most previous administrations, including the incompetent rule of Prayut and his cronies since 2014.
But while the proposals and the aspirations for reform are genuine, the actions of the Move Forward Party since the election have also been an elaborate charade, because everything is predicated on the assumption that Pita will inevitably become Thailand’s 30th prime minister and the coalition will inevitably form the next government of Thailand. In fact this is far from being a foregone conclusion.
Pita and his party are pursuing a fake-it-till-you-make-it strategy, conjuring up the illusion that Pita is the undisputed PM-elect and the coalition is a government in waiting. Their aim is to generate enough momentum and persuade enough Thais that they are the rightful winners of the election that nobody will dare challenge them and prevent them forming the next government, because doing so would cause nationwide uproar. They are showing Thais that they have clear plans for the kingdom and will implement the reforms that most of the population yearns for, in the hope that their opponents will conclude that standing in their way would simply be too risky.
But despite his bravado, Pita is well aware that huge hurdles lie ahead before he can become prime minister. The military is incensed at the coalition’s plans to reform and shrink the bloated armed forces and abolish conscription. The police and judiciary will also do everything they can to sabotage reform. By daring to take on the military, police, judiciary and bureaucracy head on, and seeking to push through much needed reforms, the coalition is crossing a line that has never before been crossed in Thailand, and furious resistance is inevitable.
Behind the powerful military and bureaucratic establishment determined to defend the status quo at all costs is an even more formidable enemy of reform — the palace. King Vajiralongkorn has a visceral hatred of the reform movement in Thailand and wants it crushed by any means necessary. Former army chief Apirat Kongsompong who is now one of the king’s closest and most trusted aides also loathes Move Forward and the mostly youth-led protest movement.
In October 2019 he gave a hysterical speech in which he claimed a sinister alliance of former communists, leftist academics, corrupt politicians and foreign provocateurs was conspiring to destroy Thailand using “hybrid warfare” tactics that included fake news and propaganda. He wept as he proclaimed his devotion to Vajiralongkorn, and burst into tears again while claiming his father Sunthorn was a war hero who was "shot by the communists while he was piloting a helicopter and protecting his nation". In fact his father was a coupmaker and womaniser with a scandalous private life and there is no record of him ever being wounded in battle. Apirat warned that Thailand’s stability could be disrupted by activists using similar tactics to the protesters fighting for democracy in Hong Kong.
Vajiralongkorn and Apirat hated the previous incarnation of Move Forward, the Future Forward Party, and its charismatic billionaire leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, and after the party performed surprisingly well in the 2019 general election, becoming the third biggest party in parliament they were determined to sabotage it. Thanathorn and other Future Forward leaders had been careful to avoid any overt challenge to the monarchy, but they were open about wanting the military out of politics and an end to Thailand’s dizzying cycle of coups.
As the palace has done repeatedly in the 21st century, Vajiralongkorn sent a signal via an intermediary to the Constitutional Court telling them to deal with Future Forward. In November 2019 the Constitutional Court disqualified Thanathorn as a member of parliament because he had allegedly owned shares in a media company in violation of the 2017 constitution. But this did not go far enough to satisfy Vajiralongkorn and Apirat — they wanted Future Forward to be dealt a killer blow.
A case accusing the party of links to a global conspiracy involving the mythical Illuminati secret organisation was so ridiculous that even Thailand’s pliant judiciary had to throw it out, but an opportunity arose in February 2020 when the court was due to rule on whether a 191.3 million baht loan from Thanathorn to Future Forward was an illegal donation. The whole case was absurd because the payment was clearly a loan, which was allowed, not a donation, but the palace ordered Constitutional Court judges to ensure a guilty verdict with a punishment as harsh as possible.
On February 21, 2020, as expected, the Constitutional Court dissolved the Future Forward Party and banned Thanathorn and other party executives from politics for 10 years.
The stunning electoral success of the Move Forward Party in the May 2023 election has driven Vajiralongkorn and Apirat to new peaks of paranoia. Nikkei Asia has quoted a “senior courtier close to King Maha Vajiralongkorn” as saying the idea of a Move Forward government was “nuts” and predicting that Prayut would remain caretaker prime minister for the foreseeable future.
Backed by the power of the palace, Thailand’s military and bureaucratic elites are mobilising to keep Move Forward out of power. The battle has already begun.
Secret plot #1
iTV was launched in 1995 as Thailand’s only independent television station, focusing exclusively on news, with Siam Commercial Bank, the Crown Property Bureau, the Pacific Communications firm owned by palace public relations advisor Piya Malakul and Nation Multimedia Group as major shareholders. To safeguard its independence, shareholders were barred from owning more than 10 percent of the company. But iTV began haemorrhaging money after the 1997 economic meltdown and soon became insolvent.
Desperate to shield the shareholders linked to the palace from damaging losses if iTV collapsed, the Democrat Party government led by Chuan Leekpai ended the 10 percent cap on shareholdings to try to attract a buyer. In 2000, Thaksin stepped in and his Shin Corp conglomerate bought most of iTV for $60 million. He significantly overpaid — the assets of iTV were worth far less and the company was insolvent — but Thaksin had his reasons. He was able to further ingratiate himself with the palace by bailing out Siam Commercial Bank and the Crown Property Bureau, and it also gave him a platform to promote his bid to become prime minister in the 2001 general election.
Thaksin wasted no time in compromising iTV’s editorial independence, pressuring journalists to downplay negative news about his Thai Rak Thai party and give him favourable coverage. Some journalists resisted and 21 of them were fired. Shin Corp also gained permission to increase the amount of entertainment content on iTV and reduce the amount of news. But by 2006, as Thailand’s establishment turned against Thaksin, iTV was accused of breaching regulations and hit with a $2.1 billion fine. After the military toppled Thaksin in a coup in September 2006, the new government said it would take over iTV if the fine was not paid, and appointed a new executive board made up entirely of civil servants.
In March 2007, iTV was taken off the air permanently and has not produced any media content ever since. The station was replaced in January 2008 by the newly created Thai Public Broadcasting Service, or Thai PBS. Its shares were delisted by the Stock Exchange of Thailand in 2014. The only reason the company still exists is because it is pursuing an interminable legal case against the Office of the Prime Minister over a $2.89 billion compensation claim. Until this is resolved, iTV will continue to exist, but as a zombie company with no media operations.
A few days before the May 14 election, serial petitioner and Palang Pracharath Party election candidate Ruangkrai Leekitwattana submitted a complaint to the Election Commission claiming Pita was not eligible to be an MP because he held 42,000 shares in iTV.
Articles 98(3) of the 2017 constitution and 42(3) of the MP election law forbid anybody who owns a media company or holds shares in a media company from standing for a seat in parliament. The logic behind the rule is that an MP could use their influence over a media company to unfairly promote themselves and attack their political rivals. But the law has been repeatedly abused to target politicians the elite doesn’t like.
Thanathorn was disqualified as an MP in 2019 by the Constitutional Court because he was accused of owning 675,000 shares in V-Luck Media, an obscure company whose only two publications, lifestyle magazine Who! and the Nok Air inflight magazine, had ceased publication two years earlier. The company was preparing to close, pending collection of some debts it was owed. There was no conceivable way Thanathorn could have used his shareholding in this company to gain any kind of unfair advantage in Thai politics. Moreover, he presented compelling evidence that he had sold the shares to his mother ahead of registering as a prospective MP. Despite all of this, the judges disqualified him, an absurd decision that was pushed through because Vajiralongkorn demanded it.
Once the elation over Move Forward’s spectacular election performance faded, attention turned to Ruangkrai’s petition, and it became clear that Pita was in a precarious position.
His case had many similarities to Thanathorn’s — he was being targeted for owning a 0.0035 percent stake in a defunct former television station that no longer has an operating license, has no TV channel, and has not made any income from media operations for more than 15 years. The shares were not even in his name — they had been owned by his father, and passed into Pita’s possession because he was executor of the estate after his father died in 2006.
Nobody could sensibly argue that the shareholding could be exploited in any way by Pita to unfairly benefit himself. Yet the Constitutional Court had been willing to rule against Thanathorn on exceptionally shaky grounds to pander to the palace, and they could do the same in the absurd case against Pita.
As Pravit Rojanaphruk wrote, it was “a farce, a charade, a travesty of justice, ludicrous, shambolic, and absurd”.
Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a legal scholar at Chulalongkorn University, said that while the case against Pita had little merit, there was still a risk that he could be disqualified.
“In a normal circumstance I would say it’s low, but given Thailand’s context I would say moderate,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the Constitutional Court and the Election Commission have already lost their credibility so much in Thai society,” Khemthong said. “People suspected for years, maybe over a decade, that the court has been compromised, has been politicized and become just a tool for the establishment faction to suppress the masses. And unfortunately, both the Election Commission and the Constitutional Court played into that narrative.”
Establishment dinosaurs seized on the revelation that Pita held iTV shares as a potential lifeline that could keep them in power. The government’s legal guru, deputy prime minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, even said there might have to be another general election if Pita was suspended by the Constitutional Court, even though there was no legal basis for this assertion.
On Friday June 9, the Election Commission rejected Ruangkrai’s petition, plus other petitions accusing Move Forward candidates of lèse-majesté because they supported reform of Article 112. The Commission said the petitions had been filed too late, after the candidates had already been approved.
But this was not the reprieve it appeared to be — far from it. In a sign that a coordinated conspiracy was under way, at the behest of the palace, the Election Commission announced that even though the petitions had been thrown out, it had seen enough evidence to suspect that Pita had applied to be an MP candidate in the election even though he knew he was not eligible because of his holding of media shares. It said it would investigate the matter and take appropriate action.
Registering as a candidate despite knowing you are not eligible is a criminal offence under Article 151 of Thailand’s election law. Pita was facing a much more serious situation than a Constitutional Court ruling on whether he should be disqualified as an MP. If the Election Commission concluded he had violated Article 151 they would refer the case to the Criminal Court and Pita would be entangled in years of litigation if the case went to the Appeals Court and then the Supreme Court. If eventually found guilty he would face between one and 10 years in prison, a fine of 20,000 to 200,000 baht, and having his voting rights suspended for 20 years.
So Pita was facing disqualification by the Constitutional Court and prosecution by the Criminal Court. According to former election commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, further strategies to block Pita from becoming prime minister were likely to emerge. “Heavier weapons are being transported into this warzone, meaning the 151 anti-aircraft guns are just the beginning” he said.
Pita declared repeatedly that he was confident he would not be disqualified or face charges, but he was rattled enough that he transferred his iTV shares to relatives.
His situation looked bleak, but new revelations have potentially saved him from facing sanctions over his ownership of the shares. Significant evidence has emerged of a conspiracy to sabotage his candidacy.
iTV’s latest annual general meeting was held on April 26. A couple of days beforehand, Nick Sangsirinavin, who had previously been a MP candidate for the Future Forward party before defecting to Bhumjai Thai ahead of the latest election, posted a message on social media saying any politicians holding iTV shares should attend the AGM and also inform the Election Commission. He added that a party leader, who he did not name, had 42,000 shares.
Nick had previously held iTV shares too, but transferred them to a colleague, Panuwat Kwanyuen, before registering as a Bhumjai Thai election candidate. He had clearly discovered that Pita also owned shares, and a plot was hatched. (It’s not clear when Nick transferred the shares to Panuwat but if he held them when he was a Future Forward candidate in 2019 he would also be guilty of breaching Article 151 if Pita is found guilty.)
At the AGM, Panuwat asked an odd question — “Does iTV still operate media businesses?”
According to a video of the meeting, executive director Kim Siritaweechai replied: “As of now, the firm doesn’t do anything. It has to wait for a legal case to end.”
It’s clear Panuwat’s question was intended to elicit a reply that could help incriminate Pita. But he didn’t get the answer he was hoping for. Indeed, Kim explicitly confirmed iTV does not currently operate any media businesses.
But when minutes of the AGM were published, Kim’s reply had been altered to say: “Currently, iTV still operates in accordance with the company’s objectives, and submitted financial statements and corporate income tax as normal.” This was the opposite of what he had actually said. Yet the minutes were signed off by Kim.
The minutes of the meeting were used by Ruangkrai in the petition that he filed to the election Commission on May 10. Had the minutes of the meeting not been challenged, it’s highly likely that Pita would have been disqualified as an MP and faced criminal prosecution.
But the plot was exposed thanks to excellent investigative work by former iTV reporter Thapanee Eadsrichai, who managed to find a whistleblower to give her a video of the AGM. The video was shown on Channel 3 late on Sunday evening, blowing apart the plot to sabotage Pita’s chances of becoming premier. “Pita inches closer to PM post,” was the headline of the main Bangkok Post front page story on June 13 after the revelation that the minutes of the iTV AGM had been deliberately altered.
Move Forward MP-elect Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn demanded answers from iTV. “iTV must clarify why the minutes of its annual shareholders' meeting did not match the answer given by the chairman at the event,” he said. “Society must ask whether this amounts to falsifying the minutes of the shareholders' meeting to persecute another person politically and whether those responsible should face criminal charges.”
The biggest shareholder in iTV, with a controlling stake of 52.92 percent, is Intouch Holdings. Following the revelation that the minutes of the meeting had been falsified, Intouch ordered iTV to conduct a thorough investigation. The executive director and chairman of Intouch is Kim Siritaweechai. The executive director of iTV is Kim Siritaweechai. The person who chaired the AGM, answered the question about whether iTV had any media operations, and then signed off on a falsified set of minutes was… Kim Siritaweechai. So absurdly, Kim is ordering himself to investigate why he signed off on bogus minutes. It’s not clear why this needs an investigation — surely he can just provide an explanation?
Bhumjai Thai leader Anutin Charnvirakul has been scrambling to distance himself from the conspiracy, even though it does appear to have some Bhumjai Thai fingerprints on it. The plot was initially set in motion by Nick Sangsirinavin, a Bhumjai Thai election candidate. Moreover, the major shareholder in Intouch, with a stake of more than 42 percent, is Gulf Energy Development. The founder and CEO of Gulf is Sarath Ratanavadi, officially Thailand’s fourth richest person (although the rankings don’t include the royals) who has a 35 percent stake in the company. Sarath has links with Vajiralongkorn and is an old friend of Anutin. Anutin too has cultivated close links with the palace and has accompanied Vajiralongkon on shopping trips abroad. But he insisted his party was not involved in the plot.
“Bhumjai Thai will not waste time on such things because we don’t punch anyone below the belt,” Anutin said. “I hereby affirm that I and Sarath have been friends for 40 years or so. Forming a coalition government has nothing to do with my friendship with someone. Please do not mix up everything.”
Prawit also denied any involvement, even though Ruangkrai was a Palang Pracharath party list election candidate. He said Ruangkrai was acting on his own initiative.
Sarath certainly has an incentive to keep Move Forward out of power. The party’s plans to tackle monopolies, promote more competition and reduce power costs would directly impact Gulf Energy. Move Forward says it plans to liberalize the power industry by allowing the public to buy electricity directly from producers, and also plans to renegotiate concessions. Gulf Energy gets most of its income from long-term contracts with the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.
Whether or not Bhumjai Thai or Palang Pracharath were involved, somebody more senior than Kim Siritaweechai must have intervened after his initial answer at the AGM to get the minutes of the meeting falsified. So clearly some very powerful people were pulling the strings in the plot.
Meanwhile, Ruangkrai is appealing against the rejection of his petition, and has submitted additional documents to the Election Commission. It’s unlikely they contain anything substantive.
On June 15, iTV issued a statement intended to clarify the whole debacle. They improbably claimed that the reason for the discrepancy between Kim’s actual comments and the minutes of the AGM was because the minutes were just intended to be a summary rather than a verbatim account. They said the document was not intended to imply that iTV was still a media business. In fact its sole sources of revenue are investments and interest. It was a clear confirmation directly from iTV that it should not be considered a media company.
Now that the conspiracy has been exposed and iTV has clarified that it is no longer a media business, Pita’s chances of avoiding being disqualified or prosecuted have greatly improved. But there are still potential pitfalls ahead.
Article 82 of the 2017 constitution states that it only needs 50 MPs or just 25 senators to petition the Constitutional Court in order for Pita’s eligibility to be examined. Despite the flimsiness of the evidence, if the court takes on the case then Pita would be suspended pending a verdict. While suspended he would not be eligible to be nominated as premier, and since he is the only Move Forward candidate to be prime minister, another party, probably Pheu Thai, would have the chance to nominate a candidate instead. This would be a disaster for the ambitious progressive agenda of Move Forward.
Secret plot #2
Pheu Thai leaders were blindsided by coming second in the election to Move Forward, but despite their disappointment they swiftly pledged to support Pita to be prime minister and work with him in a coalition government. The eight parties of the coalition have gone out of their way to project an impression of unity. But the awkward reality is that the seven coalition partners of Move Forward are uncomfortable with the prospect of Pita becoming premier.
Pheu Thai is particularly concerned about the radical agenda of Move Forward and fears it will be increasingly overshadowed in future elections as the progressive vote gravitates towards Move Forward. Although it styles itself as a pro-democracy party, Pheu Thai is inherently conservative, just not as conservative as the “uncle” parties. Pheu Thai lacks a coherent policy agenda and mainly exists to protect the interests of the Shinawatra family and to amass enough leverage to bring Thaksin home.
The key difference between Pheu Thai and Move Forward was perceptively summarised by Greg Raymond, senior lecturer at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University: “Pheu Thai represented people's desire to get more out of the system. Move Forward represents the youth desire to change the system. The difference is fundamental.”
Tensions between Move Forward and Pheu Thai have been stoked by a dispute over which party will control the position of parliament speaker. The conflict over this issue remains deadlocked and has become increasingly rancourous.
Pheu Thai and the other coalition parties did not join forces with Move Forward because they were wildly enthusiastic about the party’s proposed policies. They felt they had no choice because failing to support Move Forward would undermine their image as pro-democracy parties and would probably be punished by a backlash from voters in future elections. But secretly some leading figures in Pheu Thai are hoping that something happens that prevents Move Forward from forming a government. This would provide them with a face-saving way of building an alternative coalition without Move Forward — they would say that they tried their best but it was impossible to form a government that included Move Forward so for the good of the country they had to try another approach.
Pheu Thai leaders have repeatedly vehemently denied that any secret talks have been taking place about forming an alternative coalition that freezes out Move Forward. But as is often the case when Thai politicians or generals go out of their way to deny something, they are lying.
In fact, Thaksin Shinawatra and Prawit Wongsuwan have been plotting for two years, aiming to strike a deal in which Pheu Thai would support Prawit to be the next prime minister, and in return Prawit would ensure Thaksin can come home safely without facing any jail time. The main go-between working on brokering a deal is Prawit’s henchman Thamanat Prompow, a cartoonishly corrupt character who spent four years in jail in Australia for smuggling heroin, something he had tried to deny until journalists found the court records. He then changed his story to say he was innocent because the substance seized by Australian police was flour, not heroin. He served another three years in jail in Thailand over the rape and murder of a male academic, before being eventually acquitted. He has a fake PhD from the Calumus International University, a bogus diploma mill — the thesis had five authors and was only 12 pages long including footnotes and references. A leaked intelligence report by the army’s 1st Division, King’s Guard, in 2016 named Thamanat as one of four key criminal godfathers in Bangkok. He even lied about being ill in hospital in 2019.
But despite his criminal antics and frequently absurd behaviour, Thamanat has become an indispensable political fixer for Prawit. He is an expert in the dark arts of Thai politics — vote buying, bribery, intimidation, harassment and blackmail. He described himself as the “main artery nourishing the heart of the government” and boasted that because he knew so many secrets and oversaw so many deals he was untouchable. He engineered several by-election victories for Palang Pracharat, as well as the party’s unexpected success in local elections in December 2020. He was given a cabinet position as deputy agriculture minister and became secretary general of Palang Pracharat, second in command to party leader Prawit.
The plot to replace Prayut and bring Thaksin home was exposed in August 2021 ahead of a no-confidence debate in the government. Prawit and Thaksin planned to ambush Prayut, by persuading disaffected Palang Pracharat MPs to vote against him alongside Pheu Thai and Move Forward. With Thaksin’s help, Prawit could then have become prime minister, and given his extensive web of elite connections he could have engineered Thaksin’s return and ensured it was not sabotaged by parliamentary opposition or mass protests.
This is why Thaksin was so confident in 2021 that he would come home soon. “I definitely am returning,” he declared in a talk on the Clubhouse app, where he uses the pseudonym Tony Woodsome, in July 2021. “I will say when later. And, for sure, I am going through the front door, not the back door.” His comments set Twitter ablaze, with the hashtag #พี่โทนี่กลับไทยแน่ — #TonyDefinitelyComingBackToThailand — tweeted more than half a million times over the next few days.
Thasmanat was given the role of persuading enough Palang Pracharat MPs to stab Prayut in the back, but he disastrously bungled the job by failing to keep the plot secret. Prayut found out about it a few days before the no-confidence vote, which gave him time to prevent the ambush. His team pressured and bribed wavering MPs to stay onside. Shocked that he was being betrayed by his old comrade, Prayut sent Prawit a forlorn message via the LINE app on his mobile phone, plaintively asking: “Why aren’t those MPs supporting me? What did I do wrong? I am working so hard.”
Busted, Prawit denied everything, blaming Thamanat, who was sacked from the cabinet by Prayut in September 2021 along with his ally Narumon Pinyosinwat, the deputy labour minister. Prawit pointedly kept Thamanat on as Palang Pracharath secretary general. In January 2022, however, Thamanat was ousted from Palang Pracharath following several gaffes that led to by-election defeats in Songkhla and Chumphon.
The plot against Prayut in August 2021 brought the rift with Prawit starkly into the open. The two men continued to insist that they were comrades and brothers and could never be divided, but the truth was that their relationship was irreparably broken. Prawit wanted the premiership for himself and was willing to work with Thaksin to achieve this. You can read the full inside story of the events of August 2021 in my article “The plot that nearly toppled Prayut”.
In January this year, Prayut joined the United Thai Nation party, so he could be sure of being nominated as prime minister. Palang Pracharat intended to nominate Prawit. The divisions between the two men were by now more open than ever.
The following month, Thamanat rejoined Palang Pracharath. He resumed talks with Thaksin on an alliance between Palang Pracharath and Pheu Thai.
Prayut is a royalist true believer with an intense hatred — and fear — of Thaksin. Prawit has always been much more pragmatic. He has longstanding links to Thaksin stretching back more than two decades. The Wongsuwan clan are close to the family of Thaksin’s well-connected former wife Potjaman Na Pombejra. In 2004, faced with a worsening crisis in the deep south, Thaksin reluctantly removed his cousin Chaiyasut Shinawatra as army chief and replaced him with Prawit. If another candidate had been chosen instead, Prawit would have faded away into obscurity. Thaksin also endorsed Prawit’s younger brother Patcharawat’s appointment as Thailand’s police chief in 2008. Prawit could never have risen as high as he has without Thaksin’s help.
Despite Prawit’s professed royalism and Thaksin’s pretence of fighting for democracy, neither of them have any interest in ideology, and both have a purely pragmatic and transactional approach to politics. Bitter enemies can become their new best friends in a heartbeat if it seems mutually expedient. Betrayal and backstabbing are just part of the game, and Prawit and Thaksin have a reluctant respect for each other as veteran players. They don’t take it personally.
Also most of the traditional Thai elite, who for two decades have been consumed by hysterical fear of Thaksin Shinawatra, have belatedly realised that he is not really a threat to the status quo at all. Thaksin is another dinosaur, more progressive than the most extreme conservatives but uninterested in fundamentally remodelling Thai society. He is not a threat to the monarchy or the military. He just wants to come home and be accepted back into the Thai elite.
Move Forward and the mostly youth-led protest movement demanding reform of the monarchy represent a far bigger threat to the traditional elite than Thaksin. So over the past few years, resistance to the idea of Thaksin returning has waned significantly, and Prawit would be unlikely to face much pushback if he became prime minister and gave Thaksin an amnesty to allow him to come home without facing jail. Crucially, however, this would require Pheu Thai disassociating itself from Move Forward.
Over the past year, Prawit has been working hard to improve his image and broaden his appeal. He is notorious for having a yawning charisma deficit and often struggles to walk without assistance from his aides, but he began trying to dress more youthfully, appearing at campaign events inn Calvin Klein jeans, a Gucci jacket, a Hugo Boss sweatshirt, and sneakers, among other things. In speeches and social media posts he sought to portray himself as a peacemaker who could heal the divisions that have destabilised Thailand for decades.
“The PPRP will bring love and unity to the nation. It’s time for us to stop fighting among ourselves. We, the Thai people, must join hands, so the country can move forward for the happiness of everyone,” he declared at a rally in April.
Widespread dissatisfaction with the performance of Prayut’s government and the stagnating economy meant that for the last few years it has been widely assumed that Pheu Thai would win a landslide victory in the general election. Pheu Thai encouraged these expectations, with party leaders saying they were targeting an overall majority in parliament. But to be sure of a large and stable coalition, they were open to teaming up with Bhumjai Thai as well as Palang Pracharat.
For years Pheu Thai had refused to countenance any deals with Bhumjai Thai because the party is controlled by Thaksin’s former ally Newin Chidchob who infamously betrayed him in 2008 to bring down Thaksin’s proxy People’s Power Party government and allow the Democrat Party led by Abhisit Vejjajiva to take power in a coalition government. But as usual in Thai politics, as years went by since Newin’s act of treachery, pragmatism began to trump principles, and Thaksin was not opposed to joining forces with Anutin.
Thamanat continued to facilitate negotiations between Prawit, Anutin and Thaksin. On October 31, 2022, he flew to Dubai on Emirates flight EK375 for secret face-to-face talks with Thaksin. One of my sources was on the same flight and took a photograph of Thamanat in the Emirates lounge at Suvarnabhumi.
Thamanat was the ideal person to broker a deal because he was known and trusted by both Prawit and Thaksin — he’d joined Thai Rak Thai in 1999 and was a Pheu Thai election candidate in 2014, before joining Palang Pracharath in 2018. Prawit and Thaksin are relaxed about his criminal tendencies — both men have plenty of underworld contacts and are not fazed by lawbreaking.
As the election approached this year, Prawit, Thaksin and Anutin were confident that they were ready to form a workable coalition that would have a significant majority of seats in parliament. Prawit has significant support in the Senate so the coalition would easily get enough votes to enable him to become prime minister, and opposition to Pheu Thai being part of the government and Thaksin being given a pardon was expected to be muted. Prawit was preparing to become premier, and Thaksin was preparing to come home.
Then the shock election result changed everything. Nobody had expected Move Forward to perform so well and end up with the most seats. The plans of Prawit, Thaksin and Anutin were suddenly unravelling.
Pheu Thai faced a dilemma because if it failed to give Move Forward its support it risked a significant backlash from its supporters, many of whom voted for the party because they believed it was on the side of democracy and ordinary people. There was a risk the party would irreparably damage its brand and be severely punished at the next election if it betrayed Move Forward, haemorrhaging even more votes to its progressive rival. So Pheu Thai had little choice but to throw its support behind Move Forward.
But this is far from ideal for Thaksin because he wants to be welcomed back by the Thai establishment, and this requires him to show that he is not a threat to the traditional order and will not rock the boat. Being seen as aligned with the radical agenda of Move Forward is the last thing he needs.
This is why, despite insisting they fully back Pita to become prime minister, Pheu Thai leaders are hoping that his bid for the premiership is blocked, which would provide them with a face-saving pretext to form an alternative coalition that leaves Move Forward in opposition.
As Arun Saronchai wrote in a perceptive article for Thai Enquirer: “There is a pathway where Pheu Thai joins with BJT, the PPRP, the Democrats and the senate in forming a separate government. Pheu Thai would not be breaking any promises, they can say truthfully that they tried in good faith to back the MFP but they couldn’t get it across the line. They can say that they have to make this deal with BJT and the PPRP otherwise Prayut Chan-ocha and the caretaker government will be in place forever. In this scenario, if MFP chooses not to join this coalition, Pheu Thai could play the victim card and say they played ball but MFP were the new brats in the room who wouldn’t come together to oust the Prayut regime.”
There are plenty of ways Pita could end up being frozen out. Even if he escapes being disqualified under Article 98(3) of the constitution, or prosecuted under Article 151 of the criminal code, or suspended long enough to thwart his bid to become premier, he still has to deal with the raw parliamentary arithmetic that he needs at least 376 votes from the 500 MPs and 250 senators to become prime minister and there is no guarantee he will achieve this.
The coalition has 312 MPs which is still 64 votes short of what Pita needs. Move Forward says at least 40 senators have agreed to vote for Pita but this is likely to be a significant exaggeration, and even if it’s true, it’s still not enough. Most senators loathe Move Forward because of the party’s attitude towards the military and monarchy and will never vote for Pita. Even senators who privately think Pita deserves to be prime minister given his election victory will think twice about voting for him — they fear becoming pariahs, accused of betraying the palace and siding with traitors. Some might abstain but that doesn’t help Pita — he needs votes.
A crucial factor is how Bhumjai Thai, the Democrats and other establishment parties vote. Most of these parties have given lip service in the past to the principle that the party with the most MPs should get to nominate the next prime minister.
In March, Anutin told reporters after a meeting with Prawit: “Let me stress that the next prime minister must come from the party that can gather a majority of MPs in the House of Representatives. That’s a way to honour the people. Don’t distort the principle.” He added that “Prawit also shares the view that a party that wins the most seats should have its candidate get the prime minister post”.
If this is true, and Anutin sticks to these principles, then Pita will become prime minister. Just the 71 votes of Bhumjai Thai would be more than enough to surpass the 376 threshold, regardless of what other parties and the senators do.
But there is significant evidence to suggest that Anutin will find some pretext to avoid honouring his word. There are various ways that parties like Bhumjai Thai and the Democrats can come up with an excuse to avoid voting for Pita. If the iTV share saga is not yet resolved, they could claim that the uncertainty over Pita’s fate means there could be considerable instability if he becomes premier. Alternatively, they could say that because of Move Forward’s stance on the monarchy, they cannot in good conscience vote for Pita as patriotic Thais who revere the monarchy. Senators will use the same excuses to explain why they are also not supporting Pita.
If Vajiralongkorn intervenes behind the scenes, as he did to destroy the Future Forward Party and the political career of Thanathorn, then Pita will never become prime minister.
“Coming first in the general election is a remarkable achievement for his young party, winning a tough battle against all odds with fearless but under-armed volunteers,” said Termsak Chalermpalanupap in an analysis of the political landscape for the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies “Securing the premiership, however, is a more daunting challenge, a larger war in which Pita looks vulnerable, and might fail.”
It’s clear that secret talks are continuing among Pheu Thai, Palang Pracharat and Bhumjai Thai. Stretta Thavisin, a former lover of Yingluck Shinawatra and one of the three Pheu Thai candidates for prime minister, was photographed at the King Power stadium on May 29 for Leicester City’s last match of the season, against West Ham, with Anutin and former police chief Chakthip Chaijinda who is a member of Palang Pracharath and very close to Prawit.
Sretta claimed on Twitter that he’d bumped into Anutin by chance at the match. “As for Mr Anutin, I know him personally, and we exchanged greetings and talked when we bumped into each other. There was no political talk or deal. We don't have to come to England to talk,” he said.
The attendance at the match was 32,183 so it’s extremely implausible that Sretta and Anutin “bumped into each other” and ended up next to each other purely by chance. It’s possible that both had their seats arranged by the staff of Leicester City chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, and that’s why they ended up sitting so close to each other. But the claim that Sretta, Anutin and Chakthip were all in the UK coincidentally and did not hold any discussions stretches credulity. So does Prawit’s claim that he had no idea Chakthip was visiting the UK.
If Pheu Thai, Bhumjai Thai and Palang Pracharat add the Democrat Party and Chart Thai Pattana parties into their coalition, as it is rumoured they hope to do, they would have 297 seats in parliament, and with the support of senators they would face no problem installing their favoured candidate as prime minister.
Former brothel tycoon turned anti-corruption whistleblower Chuwit Kamolvisit has alleged on social media that another secret meeting of representatives from Pheu Thai, Bhumjai Thai, Palang Pracharath, the Democrats and Chart Thai Pattana was held on the Malaysian island of Langkawi to discuss a coalition agreement. Chuwit is an eccentric character but his information is usually accurate.
Over the past couple of months, Thaksin has repeatedly said he intends to return to Thailand ahead of his 74th birthday on July 26. Thaksin has said several times in the past that he was coming home, but it never happened, and he has been in self-imposed exile since 2008, mainly in Dubai and London. But this time he seems serious, and it is the first time he has ever given a time frame for his return. His daughter Paetongtarn, nicknamed “Ung Ing”, who is one of the prime ministerial candidates of Pheu Thai, has also confirmed several times that Thaksin will come back to Thailand next month.
“I’ve decided to go home to raise my grandchildren within July, before my birthday,” Thaksin tweeted on May 9. “It’s been almost 17 years that I’ve had to be apart from my family. I’m getting old.”
Thaksin says he is willing to face justice upon his return — he has been sentenced to a total of 12 years in jail after being convicted in four corruption cases, which he says were politically motivated. During a Clubhouse chat on May 16, he was asked if he was prepared to go to jail. Thaksin replied: “Whatever will be will be.”
If Pheu Thai forms a coalition with Palang Pracharat, Bhumjai Thai, the Democrats and Chart Thai Pattana, he could probably expect a pardon relatively quickly. But if Pheu Thai sticks to its promises and is seen as helping prop up a Move Forward-led government, the traditional establishment is likely to be far less forgiving.
“This is not the end, but the beginning,” Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, deputy leader and co-founder of Future Forward, told a crowd of dejected but defiant supporters on February 21, 2020, following the Constitutional Court’s decision to dissolve the party and ban party executives from politics for 10 years. “This will spread like wildfire.”
He was right. The verdict provoked a remarkable wave of protests at university campuses and schools across Thailand, and Thai communities around the world.
On February 24, large “flash mobs” were held at Thammasat University, Chulalongkorn University, Ramkhamhaeng University, Kasetsart University, Srinakharinwirot University and Prince of Songkhla University. Within days there had been protests at more than two dozen universities. There were rallies at two prestigious Bangkok schools — Triam Udom Suksa School on February 27 and the all-girl Suksanari School on February 28.
Each institution had its own Twitter hashtag to organise rallies, and the three-finger “Hunger Games” salute was ubiquitous at the flash mob events. They were the biggest protests against the Thai regime since Prayut and his allies had seized power in a coup in 2014. There was also an unprecedented new — and explosive — element in many of the protests: students held up signs and wrote slogans challenging the monarchy. The anger at Vajiralongkorn that had been simmering on social media was now overflowing into physical protests on university campuses and in schools.
After a prominent Thai activist, my friend Wanchalearm Satsaksit, was abducted and presumably murdered in June 2020, students and pro-democracy Thais began holding ever bolder mass protests.
The extraordinary and unprecedented events of 2020 changed Thailand forever. For the first time in Thai history a mass movement emerged that openly challenged the palace and demanded reform of the monarchy. The dinosaurs were appalled — and terrified.
The great irony of the events of 2020 in Thailand is that by trying to crush any prospect of a mass protest movement demanding democracy, Vajiralongkorn and Apirat had managed to achieve the opposite of what they intended. They had unleashed the very thing they were desperately trying to prevent.
The success of Move Forward in the May 2023 general election is a direct result of the regime’s heavy handed tactics destroying the Future Forward party and refusal to listen to calls for reform.
It would clearly be insane for Vajiralongkorn and Apirat, and the dinosaurs in the Senate and Election Commission and judiciary, to prevent Pita from becoming prime minister, after his party won 14 million votes and the most seats in parliament.
A resumption of mass protests would be inevitable. Veteran activists Anon Nampha and Somyot Prueksakasemsuk have already said they will bring tens of thousands of people onto the streets if the democratic wishes of Thais are sabotaged. Given the remarkable mandate Move Forward has been given by Thai voters, if they are blocked from forming a government there will be widespread fury, not just among youthful activists but throughout Thai society. Move Forward’s 14 million votes showed the party has broadened its appeal beyond young progressive Thais and has support among all age groups and all social classes.
Attempts to block Pita and the party that received overwhelming voter support from forming a government has resulted in an “ongoing political crisis”, Somyot said at a rally at the Election Commission headquarters. “Such petitions and their acceptance will be considered as ill intentioned and the destruction of democracy.”
Are the dinosaurs really so out of touch and arrogant that they will risk a mass uprising that could sweep them from power forever and have significant implications for the future of the monarchy? Will they be willing to open fire on protesters again, or stage another coup, and are they prepared for the consequences?
Unfortunately, all the evidence from Thailand’s modern history shows that the military and monarchy and traditional elite rarely learn from the past and always put short-term defence of their interests over serious long-term strategy. So they may well be stupid enough to try to freeze out Move Forward.
This will only result in widespread outrage and an even more impressive performance by Move Forward in the elections in 2027. A far better strategy would be to allow Move Forward to govern — its MPs are mostly young and inexperienced and when faced with the realities of running the country they might struggle at times and lose some popularity. Turning them into martyrs for democracy by blocking their bid to form a government will only exponentially boost their support. And using performative reverence for the monarchy as a pretext for keeping Move Forward out of power will backfire badly.
“This unambiguous politicisation of the crown by its supporters is a perilous strategy, stokes republicanism, and may put the monarchy at risk,” wrote Thai studies professor Kevin Hewison in an analysis last month. “Should the conservatives, in the name of the monarchy, succeed in stymying Move Forward and voter sentiment, its use of lese majeste and the monarchy unmistakeably involves the monarchy in a reactionary political movement.”
He added: “If Move Forward is thwarted, the popular response can be expected to be angry and determined, and following the lead of the protests of 2020, symbols of the crown will likely be targeted and the calls for its reform will be louder than ever. Criticism is likely to veer into republicanism, further challenging the core of conservative beliefs. A military intervention cannot be ruled out. Given King Vajiralongkorn’s personal control of military units in Bangkok, another coup would certainly be identified as royalist and would be vigorously opposed, probably irreversibly damaging the monarchy’s position.”
As for the prospect of Pheu Thai leading an alternative coalition that leaves out Move Forward, the party faces a dilemma. An alliance with Prawit and the Democrat Party would certainly be good for Thaksin’s prospects of staying out of jail, but it would be calamitous for Pheu Thai. A large number of the party’s supporters would be disgusted that after all its pro-democracy posturing, Pheu Thai had chosen to join forces with the party of one of the key coupmakers who seized power in 2014, and the hated Democrats who presided over the bloody suppression of Red Shirt protests in 2009 and 2010. It would do severe long-term damage to the Pheu Thai brand and the party would be heavily punished by voters at the next general election.
There seems to be some disagreement even within the Shinawatra family. Thaksin’s daughter Paetongtarn, who is 36 and tipped as a future Pheu Thai leader, is reportedly adamant that the party must not break its pledge to Move Forward. She understands much better than Thaksin how damaging it would be to alienate the kingdom’s youth.
As Ken Mathis Lohatepanont wrote in an analysis for Thai Enquirer last month: “There is nothing necessarily wrong with the second largest party having a go at setting up a government if the largest party fails. However, it would be a public relations disaster, after the party released a press statement several times that they will not seek to put together a rival coalition. Pheu Thai’s leaders will know, having just suffered a heavy blow at the election that dashed its dreams of a landslide, that building a government that puts Move Forward in the opposition would only drain Pheu Thai further of its popularity while putting its rival in pole position to win even more seats at the next election.”
But if senators and Bhumjai Thai and Democrat MPs refuse to vote for Pita, and he fails to reach the 376 vote threshold, the political calculus may change. As Ken observed: “The road ahead is long, however; minds may shift as circumstances evolve. In any case, would an attempt to form a government after a parliamentary deadlock truly be considered an attempt to form a rival coalition?”
The election was basically a referendum on military rule and the unrestrained power of the palace. Two thirds of voters showed they want democracy and reject military rule, by voting for Move Forward or Pheu Thai. That number will only keep growing. Thailand is fundamentally changing, and reverence for the monarchy and military is fading away. Demographic factors are also important — older people who tend to be royalist and conservative are dying, while at each election more young people join the electorate. If the dinosaurs are dumb enough to try to block Pita and Move Forward, it will infuriate most Thais and accelerate their demise.
“Thailand’s traditional elite should seek compromise while it can,” wrote Thitinan in his article for Nikkei Asia.
“Whatever happens now with Pita's premiership and Move Forward, Thailand clearly will never be the same again. The existing political order that dates back to the second half of the last century will come under increasing scrutiny and pressure for reform and change. The best outcome would be compromise and concession, allowing the military, monarchy and other traditional institutions to negotiate to keep some but not all of their prerogatives and privileges.”
He added: “With the writing on the wall, if the forces of the old order play for keeps, as in the past, this time they may risk losing everything as the forces for change from below and from across generations and past color-coded divides will continue to knock on their door.”
One thing is clear, whoever becomes prime minister — the dinosaurs are approaching extinction. It is just a matter of time.