Mon, Feb 04, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Tired of army rule, Thai youth a rising force in March election

By Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panarat Thepgumpanat  /  Reuters, BANGKOK

Standing atop the stairs outside his university’s auditorium, 20-year-old campaigner Parit Chiwarak led a protest of hundreds of people calling for an end to Thailand’s ruling military junta.

“The military is supposed to protect the country, not fight the people,” he called out to students gathered this month at Thammasat University in Bangkok, one of Thailand’s most prestigious universities.

“We want elections,” attendees chanted, many of them waving fans emblazoned with hearts reading “Love Democracy.”

Thailand is scheduled to hold its first election since the army seized power in a 2014 coup next month.

The March 24 vote could be swayed by young people, many of them newly politicized and active in a way that has rarely been seen since state forces crushed student pro-democracy movements in the 1970s.

Voters aged 18 to 35 now make up just more than one-quarter of the electorate of about 50 million. Of those, 7 million are eligible to vote for the first time.

While it is not clear which way young people will vote, many have said that they do not favor the junta and the military-backed parties that have been formed to contest the election.

Young Thais for years have been seen as politically apathetic. Many have said that they were turned off by years of paralyzing street protests by Thailand’s two rival factions, the Red Shirt loyalists of exiled former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and establishment Yellow Shirt pro-military royalist groups.

However, nearly five years of direct military rule has led to a small, but determined movement of young people calling for change.

“Young people today are not like before. We’re more politically engaged, and we’re a large voter base,” said Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a 22-year-old student advocate. “This is an all-important election for us. It’s more than a transition of politicians, but a testimony whether we accept dictatorship, a life-and-death moment for our future.”

A poll in December last year by King Prajadhipok’s Institute found that 90 percent of young voters aged 18 to 24 surveyed said they would vote in the next election, a departure from conventional wisdom that Thai young people are apathetic where politics are concerned.

That compares to only 37.9 percent of Thais aged 15 to 25 who said they were “quite interested or very interested” in politics ahead of Thailand’s most recent election in 2010 .

“Young people are creating ripples and are more politically awakened,” said Anusorn Unno, a lecturer at Thammasat University.

Most of the student advocacy has focused on calling for elections and has not translated into support for any party.

One new political party is making direct appeals to the youth vote as part of its platform.

The Future Forward party, led by the charismatic heir to an auto parts manufacturing empire, promises a new kind of politics that weakens the military and moves beyond the red-versus-yellow conflicts.

“The young people grew up in a highly divisive society. They don’t see this as the new normal; they seek a way out. They seek change,” said party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who at 40 is at least a decade younger than other major parties’ likely prime ministerial candidates, who are all in their 50s and 60s.

Future Forward, made up almost entirely of young progressives with zero experience in politics, touts left-wing policies including scrapping obligatory military conscription for young men and ending economic monopolies for wealthy families.

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