Opinion: Future Forward Dragged Down by the Present

Future Forward Party Founding members Thanatorn Juangroongruangkit, center right, and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, center left, in May during a party meeting. Photo: Matichon
Future Forward Party Founding members Thanatorn Juangroongruangkit, center right, and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, center left, in May during a party meeting. Photo: Matichon

Re•tention: Pravit Rojanaphruk

How far will a new progressive political party go to attract voters? And to what extent is it willing to compromise its anti-junta stance?

The Future Forward Party headed by billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was caught in the crossfire after exiled junta critic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, based in Kyoto, Japan, criticized the leader of a popular girl group Monday.

Pavin blasted BNK48’s Cherprang Areekul for supporting the military regime by helping promote its programs.

(In full disclosure, Thanathorn was a board member of Matichon Group, the parent company of Khaosod English, before he entered politics.)

It got to the point where the vitriol Pavin hurled against Cherprang ignited an anti-Pavin wave of criticism against Future Forward due to perceptions he is closely associated with the party. The academic has previously promoted Thanathorn on his influential social media channels and dressed in the party’s orange-colored apparel.

By Tuesday, Chris Potranandana, another party founder, lashed out at Pavin for damaging the party, saying he “lacks maturity.” He also stressed the academic had not affiliation with the party.

It led Pavin to declare that his “honeymoon” with the party was over, as he began criticizing and questioning its democratic credentials.

By Wednesday morning, the party stayed quiet, so I asked spokeswoman Pannika Wanich about the kerfuffle.

She played it safe, saying that while Chris’ opinion didn’t represent the party, “artists” including Cherprang “should have the freedom to express their political stance. If they truly believe in autocracy, they should have the right to support the military government.”

Some found the spokeswoman’s response astute; others saw it as a lame attempt to win votes from Cherprang fans.

An estimated 6 million Thais will be eligible to vote for their first time come February – this is not a small constituency – and BNK48 is popular with young men.

At the level of democratic principles, it’s ironic that a party which claims to oppose military rule is unwilling to reprimand people like Cherprang who publicly promote it. On the other hand, it’s likely a pragmatic calculation to win as many young voters as possible.

It seems they can’t please everyone, and some of the party’s democratic credibility has been lost as the feud continues.

This fiasco shows how even the pro-democracy camp can be narrow-minded, verbally abusive and perceive things as a zero-sum game.

For being gay, Pavin has been verbally abused and called a freak by some Future Forward Party supporters. They make a mockery of the party’s claim to support the advancement of LGBT rights by engaging in gay-bashing verbal orgies on social media. Pavin, on the other hand, responds with vitriol for his opponents, making civil debate seem impossible.

Party diehard Chinnawat Chankrachang wrote online Wednesday to urge “Future Forward People” to defend the party on social media.

My fear is that a party cult of Future Forwardism – where Thanathorn is at the apex – is fast developing, and tolerance for criticism of it is diminishing. This is not the path to build a democratic culture.

Tired of hearing the other side of the debate, Chinnawat also said that “whoever criticizes Future Forward [on Facebook] please block me. I am fed up with those who slander the party.”

How ironic that Pavin does something similar. For awhile, he would not allow non-Facebook friends to comment on his posts. He must know he’s a target of hate speech from the pro-junta camp, too.

This latest drama shows that the days when some Thais could engage in civil discourse and agree to disagree are indeed long gone, even for some of those claiming to fight for freedom and democracy.

Thailand’s future cannot really go forward if the ugly weight of its present is unaddressed.