A file photo of Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit

BANGKOK — Opposition co-leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit on Monday said he has never lent his support to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, contrary to a claim made by the army chief earlier this month.

The Future Forward Party chairman said the issue was blown out of proportion by those who sought to link him with the protests in Hong Kong based on a single photo of him and activist Joshua Wong. Thanathorn, who reportedly had an investment of 4 billion baht in China, also urged fellow Thais to embrace China’s larger role in the world.

“Some media in Thailand used the photo to report that I supported Hong Kong protests,” the billionaire-turned-politician said at a panel discussion on Thai-Chinese relations. “I have never supported the protests in Hong Kong in any way, whether directly or indirectly.”

It was the first time he spoke publicly about the encounter with Wong, which apparently drew a protest from the Chinese embassy in Bangkok and condemnation from army chief Apirat Kongsompong. The former said Thai politicians should refrain from associating themselves with “separatists” while the latter implied Thanathorn directly had a hand in the protests.

Read: Apirat Meets House Committee Over Anti-Red Speech

“Wong came to Thailand several times,” Gen. Apirat said on Oct. 11. “I don’t know what they were discussing or conspiring about, but they seem to be supporting each other.”

Wong himself recently said he’s been to Thailand only once as a tourist when he was a kid, and his second attempt to visit was thwarted by Thai immigration in 2016.

Speaking at today’s event, which was organized by the Thai-Chinese Media Association,  Thanathorn said he ran into Wong at a forum in Hong Kong, where the two happened to have been invited to speak, albeit on different panels.

Thanathorn said it was the activist who approached him and asked to take a photo with him.

“I have no hidden agenda. I am always willing to clarify the matter,” he said. “No one – not even one person – has ever produced any evidence that I supported the protests in Hong Kong.”

On the contrary, Thanathorn said he has a solid track record of good ties with China, having owned three auto parts factories in the mainland and invested 4 billion baht there since 2009. He praised Chinese production for being “cheap, fast, and good,” and added that in some years his firm spent up to 400 million baht importing materials from China.

Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit speaks at a panel discussion in Bangkok on Oct. 28, 2019.

He also said everyone should embrace China’s rise in the multipolar world.

“China’s bigger role in the world is a welcome thing,” Thanathorn told the audience. “China is the world’s second largest economy. We cannot disregard China. We cannot rely on just one pole … every country should embrace China with open arms. We cannot deny a nation of 1.4 billion people from participating in solving the problems the world is facing.”

Asked whether China’s commitment to an autocratic, one-party rule contradicts his party’s stated aim of promoting democracy in Thailand, Thanathorn said each country should pick whatever model that works best in their context.

“China has its own identity, which they called a Chinese characteristic,” Thanathorn said. “But democracy can also help a country develop. If we revert back to autocracy, it wouldn’t fit Thailand. A majority of Thai people wouldn’t accept it.”

Thanathorn led auto part empire Thai Summit and served as a board member of Matichon Group, which owns Khaosod English, before he resigned from all business positions in 2018.

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