A prominent anti-junta activist has formed a new political party, vowing that the party will ‘’not look for votes, but for problems’’, propose superior policies, and bring entertainment to Thai politics. The members include an environmentalist, a dog-lover, a historian geek and a software expert.
In early March, Sombat Boonngamanong, a pro-democracy activist, announced that he was running a political party and was going to participate in the upcoming general election. At first, most people questioned how serious he was, given that Sombat is not wealthy and his previous political activities were mostly symbolic and arty, rather than mass mobilisation. On 21 March, however, the activist showed the public his seriousness by officially registering a new party named “Grin Party” with the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT)”.
Sombat (the rightmost) and founding members of Grin Party
Upon arriving the ECT office, Sombat told the media that the election campaign of Grin Party is “We're not looking for votes; we're looking for problems.” because finding a correct problem will lead to a correct solution. Under the slogan “the bringer of entertainment to Thai politics,” he believes Grin’s policies will be far better than those of other parties.
Sombat’s choice of the party title captures his quirkiness. The party’s name in Thai is เกรียน, which is pronounced as krain. The most common definition of krain is a short and faded military haircut. It is a compulsory haircut for male students in public schools and security officers in Thailand. Colloquially, krain is an adjective which is used to refer to an act of trolling on the internet, and lack of responsibility, partly because those who commit such behaviour online are mostly high school students or lower - boys with a krain haircut. Sombat told Prachatai that he choose “Grin Party” as the party’s English official name because it means a wide smile.
Who is Sombat
Sombat is known as a political activist who has restlessly opposed authoritarian governments in Thailand in quirky and creative ways. As a political activist, Sombat introduced various non-violent, low-cost but efficient methods of activism.
When the red-shirt movement was plagued with fear after the violent crackdown in 2010, Sombat encouraged a group of Bangkokian redshirts to gather in public spaces. He organised symbolic activities every Sunday to call for justice for over 90 people killed during the crackdown. His methods include a mime, in which he was the main actor, and flash mobs. He told media that his Red Sunday group has no leader, is led by all its members. In doing this, he introduced the concept of horizontal leadership and was one of the first political activists who used social media to connect with supporters.
Because of his style of activism, he has gained support from urban, educated middle class in Bangkok--people who may shy away from the main red-shirt faction United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship.
In 2010, The Sombat initiated the “Red Sunday” campaign calling for justice for victims of the 2010 crackdown
Sombat was one of the first people who publicly defied the 2014 military coup. After the National Council for Peace and Order staged the coup, it summoned and detained politicians, activists and academics in military camps to undergo a so-called “attitude adjustment session,” but when the NCPO summoned Sombat, he refused to report, saying that the junta has no legitimate authority over him.
He attempted to escape the junta’s arrest but was eventually caught in Chonburi, and subsequently received a two month suspended jail term. Before being arrested, Sombat also posted on Facebook challenging the NCPO to arrest him if it could. Despite the prosecution, his passion for politics remains strong and in February 2018, Sombat faced a sedition charge for joining a pro-election protest at MBK shopping mall.
Sombat is also a successful social worker. In 1991, he founded the Mirror Foundation, with aims to help hill tribe peoples with issues such as citizenship, drug abuse, erosion of culture and the trafficking of women and children. The foundation later became a prominent organisation in searching for kidnapped children and missing persons.
Who’s in the Grin Party
Since the election laws state a new political party must have to find at least 15 founding members to register, on 20 March, Sombat posted on Facebook inviting anybody who wished to join his party to meet him at the ECT office the next day. He said that if less than 15 people showed up, he would just go home. Eventually, Sombat registered the Grin Party with 24 founding members in total.
Sombat told Prachatai in an interview that among the 24, only one member was directly invited which is Decharut Sukkumnoed, an environmentalist and lecturer at Kasetsart University. The rest are his online supporters who joined the party on a volunteer basis.
“Actually, there were two people, who are also my close friends, sending me private messages that they want to meet at the office, but they changed their minds at the last minute because their wives would not allow them to join’ Sombat added.
According to Sombat, this 24 people includes a journalist from alternative online media; an archaeologist who wants to make local historical sites a space for education; a retired teacher who wants to propose a new method of stray dog management; and a software expert who teaches robotic programming to children.
He believes that these founding members will help him form what he calls a “National Think Tank” which will create public policies that “no other parties can deny,” adding the party will use communication technologies to create a “mass party” which truly belong to the people.
“Working with Grin Party is like driving Uber. You have your own job, but when you have free time, you drive for clients. In our case, you use that free time to mobilise society,” Sombat stated.
The NCPO arrested Sombat in June 2014 (Photo from MThai)