Clone wars: FFP boss is not Thaksin 2.0

Many conservative Thais fear Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit is a clone of Thaksin Shinawatra, while overlooking the fact that incumbent PM Prayut Chan-o-cha shares more in common with the fugitive former premier. BANGKOK POST GRAPHICS

The ongoing media shareholding case against Future Forward Party (FFP) leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit may not have come this far if he wasn't ultra rich and moderately successful. But his high net-worth and popularity makes him a clone of ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra in the eyes of the anti-Thaksin elite and conservative media, who seem to be on a crusade to stop Mr Thanathorn's rise.

Many may never have got over the fact that Thaksin would not have risen to power if he had not been acquitted by the Constitutional Court in the 2001 Shin Corp share concealment case against him.

Isra News Agency claims Mr Thanathorn failed to transfer his shares in V-Luck Media Co prior to registering as an MP candidate in early February, even though the politician already presented the share transfer certificate to the public. Other media outlets painted the story in the same manner, as if Mr Thanathorn had dishonestly intended to withhold his shares.

It is easy to see why they may want to stop history from repeating itself by preventing a potentially very powerful politician from rising to power, without first being subjected to thorough scrutiny and being challenged with a legal case. If this is their mission, they are barking up the wrong tree and hunting down the wrong man.

The mainstream media and more conservative quarters of Thai society have turned a blind eye to the more alarming figure who is attempting to return to power with the help of deceitful and manipulative tactics, abetted by the machinations of state mechanisms. Here we are of course referring to Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the incumbent prime minister and 2014 coup maker.

The efforts to secure his return to power have been executed on a previously unimaginable scale. His regime sponsored the constitution, which made it possible for him to handpick 250 senators who will have unprecedented power to join a vote for prime minister with the Lower House. Gen Prayut is a prime ministerial candidate and he has effectively picked his own supporters to sit in the Senate.

Meanwhile, anti-regime politicians like Mr Thanathorn face criminal charges for actions that are not criminal in nature, such as criticising the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).

The Election Commission (EC), appointed by Gen Prayut's lawmakers, has also taken action against Mr Thanathorn and his party, including submitting the media shareholding case to the Constitutional Court amid scant explanation and weak evidence. At the same time, it has done little to support allegations against the pro-NCPO Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP).

The EC appears to have distorted the principle of the election law by rewarding 11 pro-regime parties with party-list MPs, even though their popular votes failed to meet the electoral threshold. This indirectly helps the PPRP-led camp obtain more party-list MP seats, which could see it win a thin majority in the Lower House and the right to form a government.

A combination of these and other tactics have paved the way for Gen Prayut to rise to power once more, making Thaksin's earlier share-concealment saga look like an amateur act. But the anti-Thaksin camp seem to be fine with this. They may believe this is a sacrifice the country has to make to help "the good man", Gen Prayut, return to power.

To be fair to Thaksin, he also did things worthy of praise. But Gen Prayut seems to have focused on copying the negative sides of his approach to power. To understand this, we cannot pretend that Gen Prayut and the PPRP are not related. For a start, the PPRP is led by four of his former cabinet members. Once the party was set up, it did not hesitate to poach MPs from rival parties. This same strategy was also employed by Thaksin's now-defunct Thai Rak Thai Party.

Both men seem to hold human rights in equal disdain, and they both rank as strongmen who have resorted to heavy-handed approaches while governing. Thaksin presided over his war on drugs policy, which resulted in over 2,500 small-time dealers and innocent people losing their lives in extra-judicial killings. Similarly, Gen Prayut showed little sympathy when his troops rounded up activists and students for staging peaceful protests, and charged them with criminal offences.

Both men share the same appetite for power. Gen Prayut seems to be trying to consolidate power in both house by appointing his trusted followers to sit in the Upper House. This is reminiscent of the allegation that, during Thaksin's administrations, both houses were controlled by the same group of people, many of whom had family connections.

If Gen Prayut manages to become the next prime minister, expect to see echoes of the "bad Thaksin" spread their way over the legislative and administrative branches.

Mr Thanathorn also has something in common with Thaksin. His rapid rise in popularity stems in part from his suggested challenges to the status quo as he pledged to build a bright new future for Thailand. Thaksin rose to popularity based on similar pledges. Both men have also demonstrated strong and determined leadership.

But Mr Thanathorn is not Thaksin. His party represents people from all walks of life. Most of the FFP's 80 MPs-elect are not influential local politicians, unlike Thaksin's parties, but ordinary people such as political activists, off-the-radar lawyers -- even a failed entrepreneur who formerly tried to make draught beer for commercial sale before he got caught by the authorities.

However, what also unites them, and makes Mr Thanathorn vulnerable to a political witch-hunt, is his wealthy background. Thaksin introduced "money politics", and many fear Mr Thanathorn could follow suit, leading to conflicts of interests. Mr Thanathorn seems to be aware of this, and has put his assets in a blind trust. But many conservative media outlets and anti-Thaksin groups have tried to find fault with him anyway.

Despite Thaksin having lived in self-imposed exile for years, elite groups and conservative Thai media fear his political influence. They are haunted by ruthless and self-serving governance, which involved a string of alleged conflicts of interests stemming from his governments' policies.

But they are wrong to fear Mr Thathanorn. He is not a replica of Thaksin, Gen Prayut is.


Surasak Glahan is deputy op-ed editor, Bangkok Post.

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