Protesters hold placards demanding that Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha resign on March 13, 2020 in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: AFP Forum via Nurphoto

BANGKOK – Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, Thailand’s most prominent voice for political change and reform, sees a “historic opportunity” in the kingdom’s virus-induced economic swoon and rising popular perceptions of a poor government response.

But will the banned politician-cum-energized activist ultimately need to take to the streets to spark the democratic awakening he and his youthful supporters say they plan to push amid a sharp and fast-intensifying economic downturn?

“You see this is a perfect storm. You have the people’s anger for all types of causes,” Thanathorn said at a press event this month in Bangkok. “Look at the failure of this government in management of the macro-economy. Look at the failure when it comes to management of the coronavirus.

“And what is going to happen in the second and third quarter of this year? The economic situation will keep on declining.”  

Thailand’s economy is sliding from bad to worse as Covid-19 impacts spread from the already lifeless tourism industry representing 20% of gross domestic product (GDP) towards domestic consumption more broadly, as fearful Thais retreat from restaurants, malls, spas and bars.

Analysts earlier predicted Thailand would likely take the biggest Asian hit outside of China and Hong Kong from the Covid-19 crisis, with big banks like Goldman Sachs and Nomura slashing their 2020 growth forecasts from 2.4% to 1%.

Thai commuters wear face masks amid fears of the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus in Bangkok. March 2, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mladen Antonov

Those dim forecasts have since grown darker with the World Health Organization’s declaration of a global “pandemic”, a designation that has forced the tourism-dependent kingdom to shut its doors to worst-affected nations, including China, and could soon shutter all local entertainment venues.

While Thais have carped over social media about the government’s perceived as inept and in spots even corrupt response with damning allegations of official surgical mask hoarding, a prolonged and wide-reaching economic downturn will play directly into Thanathorn’s hands.

Thanathorn’s Future Forward, the third-placing party at last year’s democracy-restoring election, was dissolved and its top executives banned from politics for 10 years late last month in what many saw as a highly politicized Constitutional Court decision.

The ruling, which found Thanathorn extended his upstart party an illegal loan, sparked nationwide student protests that have put his new “Future Forward Movement” on a collision course with ex-coup-maker Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s military-aligned coalition government.

That collision could come sooner than later as the Election Commission filed last week criminal charges that threaten to land Thanathorn, banned secretary general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, and ex-spokeswoman Pannika Wanich, widely seen as the ex-party’s progressive triumvirate, in prison.

Analysts believe that and a slew of other pending legal threats aim to drive Thanathorn, Piyabutr and Pannika into exile from the kingdom, extinguishing their promised new movement’s threat to Prayut before it has a chance to fully coalesce.

Thanathorn has indicated that he will go to prison rather than flee, a scenario that would give him democratic martyr status and add fuel to already percolating anti-government agitation, seen in a demonstration of surgical mask-wearing protesters in front of the Prime Minister’s Office on March 13.

Former Future Forward executives Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit (L), Piyabutr Saengkanokkul (C) and Pannika Wanich (R) at a press conference in Bangkok, February 21, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Anusak Laowilas

To be sure, there are early doubts about his movement’s organizational capacity to convert virtual discontent into real life street action.

Skeptics note his movement will necessarily lack the behind-the-scenes military and police support that gave an earlier generation of revolving Red and Yellow Shirt anti-government protests potency and staying power.

One government advisor discounts Thanathorn’s ability to galvanize a serious threat through short-lived “flash mobs”, particularly as Thais avoid public spaces while Covid-19 contagion fears reach fever pitch despite the nation having under 200 infections and just one reported death.  

“They moved too fast and now they’re gone,” said the government advisor, who requested anonymity. “It will be nearly impossible for them to come back through the streets,” he added, noting the army’s stern warnings against staging protests in public spaces.      

Thanathorn says he is now working to build a “people’s network” across the nation’s 77 provinces that will join his ex-party’s 60,000 plus members with labor, farmer and student groups towards the aim of knocking Prayut from power and forcing new elections.

That movement, certain of Thanathorn’s supporters suggest, could be timed to break into the open coincident with a lifting of viral fears and a still ill and deteriorating economy.   

One former Future Forward member says the movement plans to recruit as many as 500,000 students who will graduate from university and technical schools in March and April, most with poor if not non-existent job prospects in the kingdom’s virus-infected moribund economy.   

While Thanathorn speaks forcefully of democratic versus authoritarian, liberal versus conservative, and equality versus privilege “battlefields” – fights he intends to wage “online, in cultural spaces and on the streets” – he has so far shied from advocating for the Hong Kong-style “flash mobs” that have mixed civil disobedience with strategic bouts of violence.

Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha in an impromptu health check before a meeting with government officials at Government House in Bangkok, March 5, 2020. Photo: AFP/Handout Royal Thai Government

“The people against the military, the rest against the rich, hope against fear, the future against the past,” Thanathorn said. “If we win the battle of ideas, we will win all other battles. The battle to write a post-Prayut new political order.

“At it’s core, at the heart of this political crisis, is this question: in Thailand who does the power belong to? And the awareness of the importance of this question has never been higher among the people,” he said.

With that vaulted yet vague language, it’s not clear yet how widely Thanathorn’s movement will aim in what the ex-businessman sees as “the best chance in decades” for democratic change “thanks to the failure of the regime of managing the economy and maintaining social justice.”

While in Parliament, Future Forward took hard aim at the military and its top brass, calling for constitutional reforms and accountability for abuses committed during the five years (2014-19) of Prayut’s coup-installed authoritarian rule.

The dissolved party also took legislative aim at the so-called “five family” corporations, including the ThaiBev and Charoen Pokphand Group, that arguably benefitted the most from Prayut’s junta government while poverty rates rose and donated generously to bankroll his rise as an elected leader via the military-backed Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP).

Moreover, in October, the party voted against the Prayut government’s surprise declaration of an emergency decree that gave a legal basis for King Vajiralongkorn to take personal control of two elite infantry divisions, the 1st and 11th, nominally to provide better security for the royal family.

That perceived challenge of royal power, two well-placed sources claim, happened despite Thanathorn and Piyabutr speaking with the monarch by telephone from Germany during a September meeting with army commander General Apirat Kongsompong, a palace loyalist and son of a coup-maker.

Thai army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong describes how His Majesty the King fought against communists in Loei province in 1976 during a special lecture on national security at the Royal Thai Army Headquarters in Bangkok, October 11, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via Bangkok Post

Asia Times could not independently confirm what was communicated but soon thereafter Apirat launched his now notorious speech, replete with slides of Vajiralongkorn in military garbs during his communist-fighting days in the 1970’s, labeling Future Forward as a “leftist” threat.

That raises questions about whether a broad conservative coalition of military, big business and royalists may have been behind the Election Commission’s push and Constitutional Court’s decision to dissolve Future Forward and ban Thanathorn from politics, as well as the follow-up threat to imprison the party’s former executives.

In January, Thanathorn, Piyabutr and Pannika were all absolved of a charge filed by a royalist activist who claimed they sought to overthrow the monarchy, an accusation that carries 15-year jail terms under the kingdom’s harsh lese majeste law. The ex-politicians have consistently denied anti-royal allegations hurled at them in and out of court.

That acquittal, diplomats and analysts say, provided palace stalwarts with certain plausible deniability that the royal institution, tacitly or otherwise, approved Future Forward’s dissolution a month later on a more legalistic and obscure election law violation. 

But as Thailand’s virus-infected economy tanks and anti-government sentiment rises, its not inconceivable that Thanathorn’s movement, if formed and mobilized as articulated, will aim at the broadest conservative establishment imaginable in a fever pitch call for political change.