What Pita would mean for Thailand

What Pita would mean for Thailand

BANGKOK _ Pita Limjaroenrat is deliberately entering a political minefield, littered with politicians and governments which failed.

Wealthy Pita’s resounding victory in Sunday’s nationwide election to try and become Thailand’s youngest prime minister was a vivid rejection by a large swath of Thai society against the military’s political domination and coups.

Pita, 42, is now struggling to have his Move Forward Party (MFP) form a coalition government uniting smaller parties, while litigious knives sharpen around him.

Projecting robust defiance, Pita said the day after his election win that it would be “quite far-fetched” for anyone to oppose his victory.

“With the consensus that came out of the election, it will be quite a hefty price to pay for someone who is thinking of abolishing the election results, or forming a minority government,” Pita said at a celebratory reception.

Ballots from the May 14 election for the 500-member House of Representatives gave him and his MFP the most votes of all candidates and parties.

Likely in July or August, the 250-seat Senate – appointed by a now-defunct junta that held power after a 2014 coup – joins the newly elected House to confirm the next prime minister.

“The sentiment of the era has changed. And it was the right timing,” Pita said. “I would like to announce here that the Move Forward Party is ready to lead the forming of the future government.”

Previous opposition politicians tried to do what Pita plans, and they ended up dissolved and banned by the Constitution Court for financial conflicts, or allowed to become prime minister but were later toppled in a military coup.

Educated at Harvard and MIT, Pita’s US experience may make it easier for Washington to engage with Bangkok, which enjoys good relations with the Pentagon. 

“Thais will prove that ballot is stronger than the bullets, back like how president Abraham Lincoln said 200 years ago, will happen in Thailand this year,” Pita said, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Pita’s political base of enthusiastic, energetic, imaginative young people expanded when they convinced older relatives to vote MFP.

Pita and thousands of his cheering supporters thronged Bangkok’s streets on May 15 circling Democracy Monument, a site often used for pro-democracy and anti-coup protests.

Pita presents himself as the opposite of the grim, demanding, military leaders who seized power in coups in 2006 and 2014, which embroiled this Buddhist-majority nation in street clashes, insurrections and other disruptions.

FILE PHOTO: Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha arrives to attend a weekly cabinet meeting at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand June 13, 2017. Picture taken June 13, 2017. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha was a military coup-maker before a civilian politician. Photo: Agencies

His father was an Agriculture Ministry adviser, and his uncle was an assistant to Thailand’s former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in the 2006 coup.

After a childhood spent partially in New Zealand, Pita graduated from Harvard University with a master’s in public policy and from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with an MBA.

He put those ideas into practice at his late father’s rice bran oil company and other businesses, before divorcing his actress-model wife and plunging into politics.

Among Thailand’s gossipy “hi-so” – high society –  money-flaunting elite, Pita gained a spotlight as an “eligible bachelor” raising his pre-teen daughter.

Pita then joined the new, liberal, anti-military Future Forward Party (FFP), which was doomed to dissolution just months after winning 81 seats and placing third in the 2019 election.

In November 2019, its billionaire leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was convicted by the Constitutional Court for a financial conflict of interest that banned him from politics.

The court disbanded the FFP outright in February 2020 and Move Forward soon thereafter became the party’s new incarnation with Pita replacing the revolutionary and often fiery Thanathorn as its less-confrontational leader.

Some, however, suspected Pita was intentionally put up as a frontman to give the MFP a more acceptable “centrist” image while much more radical members lurk in the background.

If he becomes prime minister, Pita wants to redistribute political and financial power and assistance to communities throughout the country, instead of prioritizing and centralizing power in the pampered capital Bangkok.

He also plans to challenge Thailand’s large, family-run monopolistic corporations to allow for greater diversification for smaller businesses and entrepreneurs.

More difficult, he also wants to end the military’s coup-empowered influence over the 250-seat Senate, which was created to “screen” and control politicians elected to Parliament’s House of Representatives. Pita wants the Senate to be elected.

He and his party also want an end to military conscription and have boldly insisted on opening Thailand’s discreetly cloaked, influential constitutional monarchy to more public scrutiny and “reform.”

One of the protest leaders speaking to a crowd during a rally calling to reforms in the monarchy outside the Siam Commercial Bank Head Office on November 25, 2020 in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: AFP / Vachira Vachira / NurPhoto

Thousands of young people challenged police in Bangkok’s streets in 2020 with marches, satirical agitprop street theater, brawls, arson and other acts in a sometimes raucous call for royal reform.  

Pita knows those street demands resulted in arrests, imprisonment, injuries and intimidation, including via maximum 15-year prison sentences for anyone convicted under the Article 112 lese majeste law, which shields the monarchy from criticism.

Some of Pita’s closest colleagues in the MFP were active in those protests. He now wants to upgrade the debate from Bangkok’s mean streets to the grandiose halls of Parliament.

The subject of the monarchy is something most parliamentarians will likely not want to discuss in any way, to avoid legal problems or because they are satisfied with the status quo.

“We will use the Parliament to make sure that it is a comprehensive discussion with maturity, with transparency, in how we should move forward in the relationship between the monarchy and the masses,” Pita said on May 15, according to the BBC.

On election day, Pita told the Bangkok Post: “No matter what, we will push for royal lese majeste law reform.”

Pita and his MFP are currently angling to take control of key ministries, reportedly including the Ministry of Defense. The challenge to military and royal authority has already sparked coup talk.

However, a coup to stop Pita is unlikely in the immediate future, namely because his conservative opponents have easier ways to try first.

Pita is already trying to shrug off allegations that he is involved in a financial conflict of interest because he allegedly holds shares in a media company, which is disallowed for politicians under Thai election law.

Pita Limjaroenrat, center, may or may not become prime minister. Image: Facebook

Pita says he is innocent, but faces a possible trial at the Constitutional Court. A political opponent has petitioned the Election Commission and the National Anti-Corruption Commission to look into Pita’s finances and recommend his case to the court.

A key question focuses on Pita’s father – who died owning shares in a media company – and if Pita inherited those shares.

“I am not worried about the case, because the shares are not mine,” Pita recently tweeted. “It’s a family heritage, and I’m the manager of that. I informed the National Anti-Corruption Commission about this a long time ago.”

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, “Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. — Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York” and “Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks” are available here.