A tiny group of volunteers are frantically packing flyers in a small shophouse in one of Bangkok’s unremarkable outlying suburbs in preparation for the daily ritual of canvassing for votes.
The most radical party running in Thailand’s general election this month, Move Forward, has its extremely modest campaign offices in Bang Bon.
The 28-year-old, vivacious parliamentary candidate, Rukchanok “Ice” Srinork, who is continuously scrolling through her social media accounts, paces among them. Since purchasing several inexpensive bicycles, Ice’s crew has been riding them in the sweltering heat to visit Bang Bon locals in the narrowest lanes.
In the belief that this election would enable Thailand to end the cycle of military coups, street protests, and failed democratic promises in which the country has been locked for two decades, Ice is one of a group of youthful, idealistic candidates for Move Forward.
The five-year-old Future Forward party was replaced by Move Forward.
It participated in the first election that was legal following the coup that overthrew the elected government in 2014. Future Forward was novel because it promised fundamental reforms to Thailand’s political system, including restrictions on the military’s influence and, more subtly, suggested changes to the monarchy, which was then a completely forbidden subject.
The main goal of their agenda, according to Thitinan Pongsudhirak of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, was to reclaim Thailand’s future from the ruling class. Young people today have been forced to live in a nation that has been consumed by an eternal cycle due to two coups, two new constitutions, and several judicial party dissolutions. The younger population, in my opinion, became weary of it. And Future Forward capitalized on that feeling.
By capturing the third-largest proportion of seats in the 2019 election, it astounded conservatives. The network of military commanders, senior government officials, and judges that makes up Thailand’s royalist establishment responded to the danger in the same way it has in the past: it got Future Forward’s leaders banned from politics and ordered the Constitutional Court to disband the party.
Move Forward became the only opposition party when one-third of the party’s MPs quit.
However, in recent weeks, the party’s support has surged once more in polls, alarmed competitors. Many surveys indicate that its charismatic and intelligent leader Pita Limjaroenrat should be the next prime minister.
This popularity is altering the welcome Ice and her cyclist volunteers are receiving in Bang Bon, which was formerly the domain of a wealthy family loyal to a rival political group. Genuine attention has been shown in what these young people have to offer. Even senior citizens discuss Thailand’s need for significant reform.
Ice herself is a perfect example of the current political climate. She acknowledges that in the past she was a fervent royalist who supported the military coup and adored General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is currently the prime minister.
She claims that she is acting in part out of shame over her involvement in a movement that supported the coup, a crime against 70 million people. “At the time, I concurred and believed it to be the best course of action for the nation. But afterwards, I questioned how that could have happened. How could this country back some kind of coup? That’s when I changed my name to Taa Sawang.
Younger Thais use the term “Taa Sawang” (literally, “bright eyes”) to express their awakening to formerly forbidden subjects, particularly the monarchy. It became a rallying cry for the massive anti-government movement that erupted in 2020 when Future Forward was outlawed, thereby depriving millions of eagerly awaiting change young people of their right to vote.
And that movement broke the taboo by demanding openly for the first time that the monarchy’s powers and funding be held responsible, even if it was ultimately put down by the widespread use of the harsh lese majeste legislation. Move Forward’s support for royal change doesn’t seem as startling now that it has been three years. Additionally, more Thais appear to be supporting the party’s larger transformation goal.
Chonticha “Kate” Jangrew has come from the other side of the adventure. When she was still a student, she experienced her “taa sawang” moment considerably sooner.
She was one of a very select few dissidents ready to take the chance of being arrested in order to demonstrate against the 2014 coup that Ice was still supporting. She also participated in the larger, demonstrations against the monarchy in 2020. She has now, however, made the decision to give up her activism in favor of running for parliament alongside Move Forward. She says, “I think we have to engage in parliament as well as in the streets to get the improvements we desire.
She makes a unique plea to voters in Pathum Thani, a region outside of Bangkok. She informs them, “I have 28 criminal allegations against me. Two of them are for lese majeste, which carries a 15-year jail sentence. But that just goes to show you that I have the courage to speak up when I see something that needs to be done for our nation.
Her young genuineness seems to enchant even older voters. Nearly everyone who attended the market where she appeared expressed their admiration for Move Forward because they stood for change and kept their promises.
Few people think Move Forward will be able to gain enough seats to form a government despite the hype they have created. They are less favored than before by the new electoral system. Additionally, because of Thailand’s aging population, Move Forward’s natural supporters—voters under 26—make up fewer than 15% of the electorate.
However, if the party’s present increase in popularity continues until election day, they may perform well enough to form part of a coalition government or be a vocal opponent. The obvious issue that follows is whether the establishment will again use one of its extra-parliamentary plots to neutralize the reformists.
According to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, “The agenda of the Move Forward party is an existential challenge to the established centers of power – the military, monarchy, judiciary, the institutions and players that have ruled Thailand for decades.”