BANGKOK — Three years ago, tens of thousands of mostly young people in Thailand took to the streets in heated demonstrations seeking democratic reforms. Now, with a general election coming in three weeks, leaders of the country’s progressive movement are hoping to channel the same radical spirit for change though the ballot box.
One of those activists, Chonthicha Jangrew, is a candidate for the Move Forward Party. On the campaign trail on a recent morning at a market on the outskirts of Bangkok, she politely touted her party’s pro-reform agenda. It covers much of the same ground that riled Thailand’s traditional conservative establishment and triggered violent street confrontations between militant demonstrators and the authorities in a series of protests that gained traction in 2020.
An activist since her days in college almost 10 years ago, Chonthicha became a high-profile figure in the youth-dominated movement by fearlessly confronting the police during the mass street protests. Their demands included the resignation of the military-aligned government, a new more democratic constitution and, most controversially, reform of the powerful, untouchable monarchy.
Chonthicha’s protest activities have left her facing 28 criminal charges, she said, including sedition and lese majeste — insulting the monarchy — with potential penalties totaling dozens of years in prison.
The 30-year-old activist, better known by her nickname Lookkate, said moving into Parliament would ensure that those voices from the street will be heard in the corridors of power.
“I might be useful to push some laws through Parliament, particularly those relating to human rights. I think I might be able to fulfill in Parliament those demands I once called for on the street,” she said.
Move Forward, led by businessman Pita Limjaroenrat, is the only major party offering a progressive, left-leaning agenda, and its relatively youthful slate of candidates holds particular appeal to the same constituency that powered the street protests.
It grew out of the Future Forward Party, which came from nowhere to take 81 out of 500 seats in the last election. A year later, a court dissolved it over a funding irregularity. Many saw it as an effort by Thailand’s political establishment to remove a troublesome upstart.
That ruling was the initial spark for the street protests, which then snowballed into a broader airing of grievances. The government eventually stifled the demonstrations with riot police and water cannons and the aggressive use of the justice system to arrest and prosecute leaders.
According to party chief Pita, who is his party’s prime ministerial candidate, the repression reflected in the crushing of the street protests and dissolution of the Future Forward Party has left a legacy of anger that will propel the Move Forward vote on May 14.
“I’m sure the frustration is there and it will be shown in the balloting. For sure. Thais will prove that the ballot is stronger than the bullet, back like how President Abraham Lincoln said, 200 years ago, will happen in Thailand this year,” Pita, who holds degrees from Harvard and MIT, told The Associated Press.
Prajak Kongkirati, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, said Move Forward has made its mark already, firmly establishing a progressive agenda in Thai mainstream politics for the first time.
The party’s supporters, he said, “represent a new generation, a new kind of voters in Thailand seeking real change, a structural change. So you cannot get rid of the party because they represent a larger political force than their own party.”
Opinion polls suggest Move Forward is riding high, particularly with younger voters. Some say it is running second only to the juggernaut Pheu Thai party — which garnered the most seats in the last election — and that Pita is also the second favorite choice for prime minister.
The excitement the party and its leader generate was evident at a recent Move Forward rally in Bangkok, with the audience giving Pita the rock star treatment.
“They give hope to the young generation again that they don’t have to put up with the old regime. I am glad that someone is fighting for the young generation,” said 26-year-old online merchant Pannapha Hatthavijit, one of around 2,000 supporters there.
“This military-backed government is not qualified to run the country. It’s time for them to leave,” said 26-year-old quality control worker Waranya Chaiha. The incumbent prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, though installed by a vote in Parliament after the 2019 general election, originally took power in 2014 by leading a military coup as army commander.
But despite such popular backing, it’s unlikely that Move Forward is destined for power. The next government is expected to be a coalition, and other parties are unlikely to want to ally themselves with a party whose agenda includes reform of the monarchy, no matter how minor.
Kan Yuenyong of the Siam Intelligence Unit think tank believes Move Forward needs to become more practical politically if it wants to progress.
“They are very driven by ideology which is nice — not bad — but the problem is, in politics, it doesn’t work like that. They need more compromise,” he said. “I would like to see more nuance.”
Find more of AP’s Asia-Pacific coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/asia-pacific