Nearly every major news item in 2019 seemed to involve Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit: billionaire, activist, and founder of the anti-military Future Forward Party.
First there was his stunning debut at the polls, when the Future Forward defied even the most optimistic expectation among his supporters and placed third with over 80 seats gained, despite Thanathorn’s lack of prior experience in electoral politics, and even more dauntingly, the set rules which overwhelmingly favored the pro-military faction.
Thanathorn’s pledges to combat the military’s influence as well as chronic inequality in Thai society struck a chord with millions of voters, especially the youth.
“He’s a rising-star politician who managed to successfully win the hearts of young generations,” Pheu Thai advisor Sudarat Keyuraphan said in an interview.
“His popularity faces off against the establishment, threatening their comfort zones and their intertwined networks of interests,” said Satithorn Thananitichote, a political analyst at King Prajadhipok’s Institute. “He gives hope to bring forth change, and challenges the patronage system that paralyzed the country for decades.”
Even a pro-government lawmaker acknowledged Thanathorn as a phenomenon to be reckoned with.
“Although we’re on different sides, I don’t have any prejudice about him. I’m not opposed to his ideas,” Democrat MP Thepthai Seanapong said. “His policies appeal to the youth because they match with the current trends.”
Born in 1978 to a wealthy Thai-Chinese family who owns an auto parts empire, Thanathorn has served as a board member to the Thai Auto Parts Manufacturers Association, the National Science and Technology Development Agency, and Matichon Group, which also owns Khaosod English.
But business wasn’t his only passion – Thanathorn is well known among his peers for participating in NGO works, political protests, and environment campaigns.
Thepthai, who’s been in politics since 1992, said Thanathorn’s background as an entrepreneur could prove to be a double-edged sword for his political career.
“He’s a rising-star politician who has great determination, but he’s inexperienced,” the former Democrat spokesman said. “He used to be a businessman, so he continues to do his business in a swift and decisive way.”
Thepthai added, “However, it’s different in politics, where you have to be attentive to petty rules and regulations. This is why he lost his chance to achieve his promises.”
He was referring to a legal complaint that accused Thanathorn of failing to transfer his shares in a media firm in time before he registered to run in the March elections. His failure to do so, the Election Commission argued, meant he violated voting laws.
The case proved to be his undoing. The Constitutional Court suspended Thanathorn’s lawmaker status back when it took up the case in May – effectively banning him from parliamentary debates – before finding him guilty of the charge in November and stripping him of his MP seat.
There’s also criticism from his allies who felt that the Future Forward prioritizes crowd-pleasing, “woke” issues like localist and gender identities over crucial matters, such as the economic slump. That’s not to mention Thanathorn’s refusal to speak out against royal defamation laws, which caused much disappointment to some progressives.
Despite backlash from enemies as well as allies, Thanathorn’s popularity appears to steadily hold among his young supporters, many of whom saw him as a rare champion who shares their frustration with the many societal ills afflicting Thailand.
A “flash mob” protest called by Thanathorn earlier this month turned out to be the largest political rally in years, drawing thousands of people.
“His messages touch the hearts of the new generation who felt utterly repressed for almost five years during the junta rule,” political scientist Satithorn said. “The way he talks looks powerful and credible, and his image seems to be approachable to everyone even though he’s a billionaire.”
“Still, he’s not the first man to promise such hopes. We have to wait and see how far he can lead Thailand,” the pundit added.
As 2019 comes to a close, uncertainty hangs over Thanathorn’s fate. The same court that booted him from his Parliament seat is set to rule on Jan. 21 whether his party will be dissolved altogether on suspicions of harboring an intent to overthrow the monarchy – and belonging to the fictitious cult of Illuminati.
If found guilty, Thanathorn faces up to a five year ban from politics.
Chavanon “Sean” Caisiri
Known for his ombre colors, pantsuits, and structured dresses, the designer of Thai couture brand Poem made waves in the fashion world throughout 2019. His clients include Future Forward Party spokeswoman Pannika “Chor” Wanich, actress Wichayanee “Gam” Pearklin, and Burlesque star Dita von Teese.
Parina “Ae” Kraikupt
What is 2019 without the pro-government Ratchaburi MP’s facepalm-inducing antics, like dissing at a fellow lawmaker, claiming an activist set up his own attack, and suspecting that a former PM staged bomb attacks in Bangkok? She sure succeeded in distracting the media from many other scandals and grafts that deserved more airtime.
The most prominent critic of the monarchy went on radio silence after he suffered a stroke in late 2018. He apparently recovered and returned to social media this year. Though Somsak no longer wrote lengthy analyses like he used to, his commentaries on the monarchy and politics nevertheless bring delight to his cult of followers.
The former TV actor who has since adopted a philanthropic career as a rescue worker came to the aid of rural communities hit by a flood this year by fundraising over 422 million baht in donations.