Junta courts politicians ahead of general elections

With the ban on parties engaging in political activity still in place, a group of pro-junta politicians is forming a political coalition to support junta leader Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha in the upcoming general elections. The coalition will target the Northeast, the stronghold of the Pheu Thai party. 

The “Three Friends” (Sam Mit) group has been identified as the key people orchestrating these attempts. The ‘three friends’ comprise Somsak Thepsuthin, Suriya Juangroongruangkit and Somkid Jatusripitak. They were all founding members of Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT), a now dissolved party led by Thaksin Shinawatra. They were instrumental in convincing politicians in the Northeast to join the party to give TRT enough members to officially register in 2001.

The Palang Pracharat Party (PPP), which literally translates as the ‘People's State Power Party’, has actively supported the election of Prayut and vowed to continue the NCPO’s national reform plan. Its leader, Suchart Jantarachotikul, is a southern politician and a former member of the NCPO’s National Reform Council. The party also claimed that it will invite Prayut to be on its advisory board.

However, Prayut has claimed not to be involved with the PPP, saying that he treated all political parties equally. Somkid, who is currently the Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, also denied his involvement with the Three Friends but still admitted that “we’re all friends”.  

On 27 June, the group invited about 50 former MPs to join a “discussion” at the Pinehurst Golf Club. Most of the invited group were Northeastern politicians and former members of TRT or the Pheu Thai Party. Suriya revealed that all politicians invited to the golf club expressed readiness to join the Palang Pracharat Party.

The discussion at Pinehurst Golf Club (Photo from MCOT)

Another supporter of the Three Friends appears to be Suporn Atthawong, also known as Rambo I-saan. He was deputy secretary to the Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and an active member of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), commonly known as the red shirt movement. 

Suporn resigned from Pheu Thai about a month after the 2014 coup and vowed not to return to politics. After breaking his promise to join the Palang Pracharat Party, he has accused the Pheu Thai party and the UDD of overlooking him and pursuing their own political interests rather than those of the people. 

Other names in the Group of Three’s friends include Chamlong Krutkhuntod, a former deputy leader of the TRT and Minister of Education under the Thaksin government; Wieng Worachet, a former Pheu Thai MP who has won general elections in Roi-et four times; and Anucha Nakasai, a former executive member of the TRT.

What about Thaksin?

The emergence of the Three Friends raises the question of whether Thaksin’s party will struggle in the upcoming election, given that majority of his supporters are in the northeastern. 

In response, on 22 June, Thaksin made a video call from London to his brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat, vowing that Pheu Thai will still win all constituencies in the Northeast, as well as the general elections. He also sang a song, wishing those who joined the pro-junta party good luck and added that he would replace them with new-blood politicians.

“I’m about to tweet a message thanking those MPs who left the party because they have made great sacrifices to create an opportunity for the new generation to become [the people’s] representatives,” Thaksin said in the video call. 

In an interview with BBC Thai, Thaksin categorised those MPs who left the party into three groups. The first are those who face lawsuits, the second are in debt, and the third are overconfident that their personal popularity exceeds that of the party.

In June, various Pheu Thai politicians revealed that many former MPs had been invited to join the Three Friends with offers of money and political positions. According to Worachai Hema, a Samut Prakan Pheu Thai MP, the offer for so-called “A-class” politicians was up to 50 million baht.  

“In the end, if any former MP of the party wants to leave, it’s alright, because when they’re gone, there will be people who are ready to replace them immediately. Many people want to work with Pheu Thai. I confirm that Pheu Thai will stand alongside the people to keep fighting the dictator,” Worachai added. 

While some UDD members have decided to join the Three Friends, Nattawut Saikua, the UDD leader, stated that the movement remains strong since those who leave do not honestly believe in democracy. 

“For us, it’s not hot news at all. We’ve always seen the clues and each other’s minds,” Nattawut said. “I told my friends not to worry. The Three Friends, or the vacuum force, now is working as a selection agency to screen out those who in their minds are not ready to leave.” 

Harassment of the Future Forward Party

Although most criticism of the Three Friends has come from Pheu Thai Party, the backlash has hit another small party. On 31 July 2018, three members of the Future Forward Party (FFP), Charuwan Saranket, Klaikong Vaidhyakarn and Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, visited the Office of the Technology Crime Suppression Division to answer questions in a case filed against them by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). All refused to provide information to the police, so the investigation finished within the hour.

Klaikong Vaidhyakarn confirmed in an interview that the NCPO is accusing them of violating the Computer Crimes Act for publishing content that creates public panic and which constitutes treason and a threat to national security. The junta filed a complaint against the administrators of the Facebook pages “Future Forward Party” and “Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit” after they criticised the NCPO’s attempts to attract politicians from old parties to join it in the upcoming general elections. 

Klaikong added that the security authorities are closely monitoring all FPP activities. Recently, some rural supporters of the FPP were forced to resign from their positions in a local administrative organisation after joining the party’s campaign. 

FFP members answer questions at the Office of the Technology Crime Suppression Division