Originally published in Thai version on 101
27 May 2018, Gymnasium 5, Thammasat University, Rangsit Campus
The 38-year-old Associate Professor level academic delivered a speech as a politician for the first time at a meeting on preparations to found the Future Forward Party.
Five months earlier, he had just resolutely decided to step out from his ‘safe zone’ in the university and enter the ‘inferno’.
Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Thammasat University, core member of Khana Nitirat, Enlightened Jurists, a person who likes to read-think-ask-write-argue, ended the first major speech of his life with a quote from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities:
“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
Piyabutr declared that he would choose the path of someone who does not surrender; the path which believes that humans have the potential to change for the better; the path of those who believe in possibility.
“We, the Future Forward people refuse to suffer in inferno,
We refuse to be swallowed and become a part of inferno,
But we will make something that’s not inferno appear and replace inferno,
There is no way to escape from inferno, except to eliminate it.”
Not long after the end of his speech, he officially became the Secretary-General of the Future Forward Party and started walking towards the door to ‘inferno’ – elections, 24 March 2019
22 March 2019, Gymnasium 1, Thai-Japanese Stadium, Din Daeng
In two days, there would be the elections many had been waiting 8 years for. As time passed, more and more people crowded and filled the field. Most were young men and women, their eyes full of hope, their hands waving orange flags and their voices cheering for the Future Forward Party at the last big speech before the voting would begin.
It was a big stage and most importantly their first election, yet the core members barely had any roles as they deliberately gave the stage, that had been designed to be surrounded by the people, to the ‘normal people’ – LGBT, the disabled, farmers, labourers as well as candidates from all corners of Siam, making their speeches in their local languages and clothes.
At around 9 pm, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, Secretary-General of the Future Forward Party, stepped onto the stage in the midst of applause and loud welcoming cheers. For him, at that time, even in the heart of the ‘inferno’, he still felt warm and relaxed.
“For us – the Future Forward Party, there is no strategic vote. There are only votes for the future, votes for change.
The Future Forward Party demands ‘Vote for change. Vote for hope. Vote forward’.
The mission that Future Forward had taken on isn’t just to stop the continuation of the NCPO’s power; it’s not just to deal with what the NCPO has left behind; it’s not just to bring back democracy. But we wish to revive confidence in democratic politics, in representative politics, in parliamentary politics, where confidence has been destroyed throughout the past 10 years.
We want to revive this confidence to pull all groups, all colours, all sides of the people together and have confidence in democratic politics again.”
On the stage, he once again announced a ‘social contract’ – resolute, steady, never changing.
8 June 2019, Grand Hall, Thammasat University, Tha Prachan
"This is not the end, but the beginning.”
On 5 June, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party, ended the press conference after losing the vote to be Prime Minister in parliament.
One year earlier, who would have been brave enough to imagine such a political scene?
One full year after officially starting up the Future Forward Party at Gymnasium 5, Thammasat University, Rangsit Campus, today the Future Forward Party is getting ready to host an event “1 year of Future Forward, walk together: walk with me, talk with me” at the Grand Hall, Thammasat University, Tha Prachan.
Today, the Future Forward Party has 81 MPs, 50 from the party-list and 31 from the constituency elections. Today, the Future Forward Party leader has become a challenger for the position of prime minister with General Prayut Chan-o-cha, and today, the Future Forward Party has fully and proudly shifted from an alternative party to a mainstream party on the national stage of politics.
How did Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, one of the people who together established the Future Forward Party together with two of his best friends – Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Chaithawat Tulathon – do it?
101 invited Piyabutr to escape from the ‘inferno’ heat to an ‘academic’ conversation in a manner that he likes to complain that he misses, on progressive society, political philosophy and the alternative party movement, to unearth thoughts, unfold feelings, review operations and straightforwardly criticise Future Forward’s work in the first year.
"For me, Future Forward's success in the first year is that we attempted to do something people thought was impossible and made it possible."
Yes or no, let’s exchange thoughts and discuss with him…
You once said that when you were just setting up the Future Forward Party, you had applied the political theories of many philosophers. If we unearth Future Forward’s concepts, who would we find behind it?
The first person is Antonio Gramsci. He explained that state is like a centaur, a half-horse half-person, where the state is comprised of two parts: Political Society (the horse) and Civil Society (the person). The former works by coercion through state mechanisms such as the law, the military, the police, prisons. It is different from the latter which relies on consent through the mechanisms of culture, religion, education and the mass media.
Gramsci said that if you want to successfully create hegemony, you have to work mainly in Civil Society, use soft power to make people believe and listen to you, and make them think that they have to do it without needing to use state mechanisms to coerce them. But whenever hegemony starts to fail, people start to not listen, not believe, not follow the rules, the state then has to turn to Political Society to suppress them.
If we look back at Thailand, we will find that the political crises in the past 15 years are crises of hegemony. It means hegemony started to not function. From before, when people were ready to believe and give respect no matter what, it has changed to a state where people pose questions and stop following orders – then the state enters and deals with them by using the law, prisons, the military and the police to suppress them instead, while a new hegemony still couldn’t emerge in place of the old one. This led to friction between the former existing hegemony and the newly established hegemony that still couldn’t successfully step into power.
What is ‘hegemony’? It is the ability to determine selected matters as something normal that everyone has to accept, even the opposition. For example, democracy. Even if you’re a dictator, you still have to say that you’re 99.99% democracy. That means legitimacy in governance must always give importance to democracy. Even if people disagree, they still have to try and walk this way. Because of that, Thailand’s politics is moving with an appropriate rhythm. Political power on both sides has started to weaken, no matter if it’s the hegemony of the elites, Thai norms and traditions. Meanwhile the hegemony of elected politicians has also been destroyed. And so, it is the time period to establish a new hegemony.
And so Future Forward nominates themselves as a new player in this battlefield fighting for a new hegemony?
That’s right. Gramsci’s concept viewed that seizing state authority with just physical force, such as military power, the people or what is called a ‘war of movement’ wouldn’t succeed if you didn’t change people’s ideas. That’s why Gramsci said that one must also work through a ‘war of position’ as well.
Gramsci may help answer why the Future Forward Party needs to exist, but who will help answer the question on how to build the Future Forward Party?
For the next step, we had to think of practice and find tools to win that new hegemony. After the 2014 coup, I received a 6-month scholarship from France to study legal aspects of coups, including the process of shifting the constitution from democracy to dictatorship and from dictatorship to democracy. No matter where I researched there would always be some politics attached. Back then, I was still immersing myself in the study of the political movements of Europe at that time.
After the Berlin wall collapsed in 1991, many people said that it was the end of ideology; there was no more competition between democratic liberalism and communism. All countries were forced to become the same liberal democracies. In terms of economics, there were no other concepts. The world economic order was written down in a way that forces you to walk according to the path of neoliberalism as how Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of England once said, “There Is No Alternative” (TINA). We can hold elections, but no matter which party is chosen, the policies are the same. In England, the Labour Party’s policies under the leadership of Tony Blair were scarcely any different to those of the Conservative Party’s.
The rise to power of right-wing parties in many European countries also started in this manner. People felt that even after an election, almost nothing changed. There wasn’t any difference between choosing the right or the left. Extreme right-wing parties were able to rise to power because they went back to rousing people’s ideas about protecting their benefits, protecting the national benefits, opposing the migration of foreign workers into the country, and opposing joining the European Union. It resounded in the hearts of those that were disadvantaged because of the new world order, while extreme left-wing parties like the communists were absorbed in the same old concept of workers’ revolution.
In this situation, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, husband-and-wife thinkers, created a post-Marxist school of thought, trying to answer the question as to why left-wing ways of thinking always lose. Both of them believed that the problem of the old left is being too fixated on scripture. They think that everything is a class struggle. If a new left-wing theory is not created, it’s possible that extreme right-wing groups will emerge instead.
These days, the world is faced with interesting new problems all the time, like climate change and sexual diversity. But when I speak with left-wing parties they would say, hey that’s right, I agree, amazing, but that’s a small matter. The core of the problem needs to be addressed by revolutionising the working class first, make them the leaders. After that you would still be stuck in the same way of thinking, keeping out the marginalized. Then the extreme right wing would come in and deal with these people by instigating them with nationalist fervour. That’s why it’s not surprising at all that many people who once elected communist parties have today swung to extreme right-wing parties, since they feel that the neoliberalist economy, as it is under the European Union where they have to tighten their belts and reduce expenses, will lead to people in the country facing difficulties.
Laclau said that what you call ‘people’ is a part of a discourse, and all discourses are constructions. There is nothing that already exists. ‘Population’ is a fact that happens, but ‘people’ as a political grouping is a construct. Since it was a construct, the construction of ‘people’ must be contested.
Liberal democracy tries to find a consensus that’s smooth and without any stitches, with no conflict at all. You fight with me under the parliament system and in the end it’s the same with no change. Mouffe even said that all the social democratic parties have to take responsibility for the rise of extreme right-wing parties in Europe because they were no longer paying attention to the marginalized , instead emphasising on snatching minor capitalists and the middle class from neutral parties, binding their powers together to become a new kind of elite. She once said that Blair is Thatcher with more humanity; he just looks gentler.
Laclau and Mouffe’s new left-wing theory influenced by Carl Schmitt states that politics is about polar opposites. There is always conflict. But the conflict here isn’t separated vertically, left and right, like before but is separated horizontally. The important thing under this new kind of categorisation is that you must be able to define who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’.
‘We’ is everyone experiencing problems with the new world order, facing difficulties from the present economic structure, and impacted economically by neoliberalism. Some people may be more nationalistic, some not so much. People working in politics have to speak with all groups. Everyone is the ‘people’; they are ‘us’ which has to together fight against ‘them’– the elite few in society.
Mouffe said that this is left populism. The difference from right populism is that the leaders of left populism don’t instigate nationalism but have an important mission in unifying all the people being affected by the neoliberal economy, no matter if you’re a migrant worker, governmental official, student or LGBT.
The challenge of this new approach is how to unify the different needs of people from all groups and types which are the results of the past structural system into a social demand that will lead to the fight against the elite. The important art of leadership is thus creating a chain of equivalence to create social demand, find ‘our’ shared demand to fight against ‘them’.
If you look at Thailand’s political crisis through Laclau and Mouffe’s glasses, what do you see?
In the case of Thai society, it’s not exactly the same as the problem in Europe, but there are similarities in some dimensions. When I applied Laclau and Mouffe’s theory to Thailand I found that the political crises in the past 15 years have divided the people vertically into 2 groups, loosely called ‘yellow’ and ‘red’. It has been carelessly divided like this for 10 years to the point that they severed all ties with each other. They couldn’t talk to each other at all. This kind of situation led to 2 coups, one in 2006 and one in 2014. This vertical categorisation is meat and drink to the junta, the second time they seized power for a long 5 years.
Under this kind of division, the reds cite one form of legitimacy and the yellows cite another form of legitimacy. Reds often will cite the legitimacy that comes from an elected government while the yellows will cite a form of legitimacy called a system of monitoring the use of power, monitoring corruption. Both colours use these claims to create legitimacy for their own standpoint, but if you ask if it’s the truth or if they really do believe that – I don’t know.
When it comes down to it, this kind of division is very careless. If one person says they support an elected government, but they’re also ready to monitor the power of this elected government and disagree with the voice of the majority that often tells people to go to hell; if you say something like this, there may be some red shirts who would insult you and ask if you’re a yellow shirt. On the other hand, if someone says you monitor the elected government but don’t monitor the military government at all, some yellow shirts may say, hey, you’re a red shirt. Even though if we look deeply, neither side can claim absolute legitimacy. For example, it’s an illusion that if someone is on the red side, they would say elections, elections, elections are best, it’s always right; but they are ready to close their eyes right away if an elected government is using the power of the voice of the majority in an illegitimate way. As for the yellow side, you will say monitor, monitor, monitor, but you would close one eye right away if you’re faced with a military government. In the end, it’s simply that you’re only thinking of checking a government you don’t like.
It can be seen that each side uses legitimacy but both have problems within themselves. It creates illusions that cause people to be fooled by their own shadow and misguided by the colours they belong to. As time passes by, the pro-democracy side will say that they’re the only ones that are democratic. If anyone uses a different sentence, a different melody, a different language, then they are not democratic. For the other side, if anyone speaks in a different way, in a different language, they will be accused of not being in the group who monitors politicians, and of having no interest in opposing corruption.
When I look at Thai politics though the glasses of Laclau and Mouffe, I think that it cannot be divided vertically like this. It has to be divided horizontally, since it does not matter if you are a part of the yellows or reds or cheering for different political parties. At the end of the day, we are all affected by the political structure and economic structure that have existed for many decades. We have certain social demands that are the same and can be traced from the national bureaucratic structure of Thailand in the past, such as centralisation or the unbalanced national development strategy.
In the case of Thailand, what do you interpret to be the Chain of Equivalence that will tie the diverse ‘us’ together?
One, inequality. It doesn’t matter if you’re a yellow or red, you’re all victims, you’re all casualties of this country’s inequality problem. Probably nobody wants to see Thai society face the problem of inequality that is only getting worse. The group seen as the yellows are townspeople or the middle class and they can only continue to be office workers. Many people will also never rise in class. People living in the country who are often viewed as being reds will certainly never escape from the same old poverty trap. The inequality problem can be seen as a common question for all sectors, but if you just divide people vertically, into yellow-red, they will refuse to speak to each other.
Two, decentralisation. During the campaigns for the nationwide elections, I went to Phuket. The people there wanted a special form of local administration as city, collecting their own taxes so that they would have money to use within their area. I went to Chiang Mai, and the people there wanted a special form of local administration. Many provinces around the country want to follow the path of a self-governing provinces. People in Phuket chose one party, Chiang Mai people chose another. If we separate people vertically it is difficult to talk, but if we separate people horizontally, we will see that they share the same problems.
Three, rights and freedoms. This should be a basic standpoint no matter what colour you support. Since the junta has been ruling for a long time, it is more obvious that all sides are attacked, both yellow and red. And if you look at the various issues, you will see that the protests about mines, the environment, land, air pollution include people of all colours.
Four, education. What do we do so that the Thai people have the freedom to find knowledge and not fall under authoritarianism? All these examples show that we cannot divide people down the middle into two colours like this. We have to divide the people horizontally. Redefine who is ‘we’ and who is ‘they’, whether it is farmers, fishers, country people, townspeople, lower middle class people, lower class people or even office people, government officials, teachers, businessmen, start-up entrepreneurs, SME owners, labourers, everyone has their own problems and there are diversities and differences among them. A chain must be created connecting the problems of every person and every group for it to be compared equally. This will indicate the structural problems of Thailand and unites the needs of all these people in society in a clash with the elite who are the 1% that sucks up the resources, power and capital of the country in a single group. The rest of the people, no matter which colour they like or which party they support, they all go through difficulties while the elite 1% can stay the same forever, no matter if the government comes from an election or the army, without anything changing.
Now that we’ve looked at politics through these glasses, what would the new political landscape be like? How will the question of political management change? If people are divided horizontally, uniting everyone into ‘us’, how will we manage diversity since ‘we’ also have diverse benefits that even conflict with each other, as well as crossing over ideologies and classes?
Mouffe tried to collect all the victims of neoliberalism together to display that right now there is a crisis of neoliberal hegemony. Everyone is bound together in the fight to establish a new form of hegemony. This is what she thinks. Now, what tools or methods does she use?
The answer is to do a war of thought by entering all battlefields, even the enemy’s. Laclau always tried to suggest that you must enter and seize the definitions of all words that were constructed into a discourse. Each word started with an empty meaning. There has to be a struggle to seize the definitions.
The Podemos Party of Spain took these concepts and applied them. For example, the word ‘nation’ which the right wing often likes to use. When they heard this word, the left wing would reject it altogether. This leads to a lost opportunity to fight over and seize the definition. Podemos then contested the word ‘nation’ and redefined ‘nation’ as universal health insurance, as equality, and as living a dignified life from birth until death. They used the media as a tool to enter and take over all fields. If the mainstream media does not work, they build their own media into play. Pablo Iglesias, the first leader of the party, a former Political Science teacher at Madrid, knows that the Spanish are crazy about television. He set up one camera and created his own show, narrating the Game of Thrones series from a political perspective. He did it until he got famous, with a great number of viewers.
Once, after King Juan Carlos abdicated and Prince Felipe ascended the throne, in a meeting of the European Parliament when King Felipe opened the meeting, Iglesias at that time was a Member of the European Parliament under the Podemos Party before he stood in the national elections. He had long hair tied in a ponytail, a check shirt with the sleeves folded up, jeans and no suit or necktie whatsoever. When he met King Felipe, Iglesias shook his hand as a greeting and gave him a present. It was the Game of Thrones series and he just said that he wanted to His Majesty to watch it, to see that every step is a movement of thought. By contrast, left-wing parties in the past may have said, hey, we won’t meet you, we don’t support this system, which would waste an opportunity to fight on the battlefield of thoughts.
The important key in the fight on the battlefield of thoughts is the leader’s skill. The leader must have the ability to find all ‘our’ common points and be able to make the connection that what you’re facing is a result of structural problems, which is not difficult. In practice right now, the problem that both the Pomedos Party and La France insoumise Party of France have to face is that there is conflict within the party on many issues. One thing that may have to wait to be proven is that none of the parties established on the basis of these theories have ever been in government. When you mobilize people to fight against the elite, with as yet no administrative power, the problem is of another form. But the day you have administrative power, the test becomes more difficult.
How do these alternative parties answer the difficult questions of shifting from a battlefield of thoughts and words to a battlefield of concrete policies?
Both Podemos and La France insoumise tried to hold forums, pushing forward widespread and diverse popular participation, and holding various circles across the country. I have looked at Podemos’ policies and found that they’re really awesome. They cover all groups of people in lots of tiny little details. This is an example of solving conflicts between groups, and that is to hold as many forums as possible so that party leaders can have information that is complete and extensive, and use it as a basis for finding the common points of a diverse group of people.
In Europe, the main goal that Mouffe thinks about in creating this left populism is to fight on two fronts. One front is to fight against extreme right-wing groups by proposing itself as a new alternative for the people. If no left populism is created, they will definitely be finished by the extreme right wing. On the other front, we have to push forward the concept of left populism in place of neoliberalism.
Returning back to look at Thailand, I sat down and thought about why many people that came out to chase away Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon in May 1992 would turn to supporting Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha. The answer may be because these people were disappointed with parliamentary politics. Thailand does not have extreme right-wing parties like Europe, so they turned to the military instead. That is why we have to revive trust in the normal political system, so that people feel that voting in an election has meaning, not that once the election is over, everything is still the same. If a new form of political party is created, a new option will come about that will shake up the old form of politics.
This is the origin of the Future Forward Party where we applied these theories …. Choose us, and politics will change.
Can you give us a concrete example of applying these theories in practice in establishing the Future Forward Party?
First, drawing a new line. We have to stop dividing sides into polar opposites or yellow-red and try to draw a new line indicating that this is a fight between ‘us’ normal people and ‘them’ the leading 1% that benefits from the existing political and economic structure.
Second, constructing the ‘people’ by uniting diverse people to fight on progressive topics together. It is a unity that raises the quality of the struggle in terms of issues, not just to unite in large numbers.
Third, repoliticization. In the past, politicization was removed from society (depoliticization). Politics was made into something dirty and disgusting, into a source of conflict and violence, into something boring. In addition, there are no debates on public topics left at all, just things that people with power, bureaucrats and technocrats have organised. That means people have completely disappeared from politics. We have to bring people back as the subject of politics. Make the people again think that politics is in their daily lives, so they have to participate a lot in politics.
The Future Forward Party is intent on fighting with ideas, seizing political definitions in all battlefields. The clearest example is on 24 March 2019. This was their battlefield. They designed the constitution clearly in a way that no matter what, they will get to become the government, putting the opposition at a disadvantage in every way. Even so, we have to compete, walk onto their field, and keep on fighting to point out the problems. We have to continue to grab topics. If the voices are enough, we have to propose amendments to the constitution. It is certain that under the constitutional amendment process that has been established, it probably cannot be amended, but we still have to continue to try and move the line.
With this way of thinking, lately I have tried to talk more about the word ‘nation’; to talk more about ‘Thainess’. Before we may not have had any interest, letting the conservatives speak, but today we have to redefine ‘nation’ and ‘Thainess.’
The ‘nation’ is the people. If there are no people gathered together, a nation would not come into being. That is why nation has the meaning of what to do for the people to live happily, to live with dignity, from birth until death; a nation is respect for the rights and freedom of the people on the basis that the people are the ones who hold the supreme power in the nation. Loving the nation is to have a shared objective in doing these things.
As for ‘Thainess’, it is what Thai people adhere to without oppressing diverse and different ideas, creative ideas and the ability to stand on the international stage.
Fourth, technology is alongside us, helping us to use media as a tool to spread our ideas fully. In our campaigning for the election we didn’t use leaflets or campaign signs much. Future Forward evaluated that this was the first election where social media would work at full potential, so we prepared for this. Again, in misfortune there is also fortune, since initially mainstream media didn’t welcome us much. They didn’t present news about us at all. That was why we had to create our own media team within the party, using social media to directly communicate with the people.
We made our first programme called Returning Fridays to the People, deliberately parodying the Returning Happiness to the People in the Nation programme of Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha. With similar names and the same broadcast time, we measured what Thai people would rather watch. When we campaigned to recruit new party members, we tried to hold a forum, create a town hall, use leading issues, invite people who have an interest in these matters to join, not just getting anyone to come, and working only with core members. When we campaigned for the election, we used infographics as an important tool, allowing people to easily understand through a few pictures.
In terms of communicating with society, we try to raise the quality but we also have to admit that it is quite hard to fix since Thai politics throughout the past 20 years has been stuck with the political marketing that the Thai Rak Thai Party started. That is, policies that are sold in short, snappy words, easy to understand. Say the name of the policy and bingo, they will definitely get votes, like 30 baht for all illnesses. In this field, even if we fight to the death, we will lose. And our problem is to construct a chain of equivalence, so we wanted to hit the centre of the structural problem. We tried to boost policies that concerned the structure of the country, but the difficulty was exactly that people found it hard to understand. Using the words Thais are twice equal, people still didn’t get it. We had to explain further, Thai people are equal, Thailand is equal to the world. We just had to continue fighting, but many of the words we used stuck, like switch off Senator.
Fifth, working in politics as a political project. The Future Forward Party doesn’t see just elections from time to time, so we didn’t want to fight just by using competitive language. We intentionally changed our political path so the people will start to think of the structural problems. We tried to change the format of speeches from just standing on the podium where the audience don’t have any participation to a new style of speech which is more fun, by including everyone and making it a forum where normal people can participate.
On the day of the big speech before the election of the Future Forward Party, only 3 core members spoke which are Thanathorn, Chor (Pannika Wanich) and me. The others were representatives of people of all regions and all types of people. When the Party’s mission is to unify the demands of all groups of people, the key is diversity. We wanted to reflect that Future Forward represents all groups of people. Representatives of the Northern region spoke in the Northern dialect. The Isan representative was Suphap Tinnarat (Mor Lam Suphap Daoduangden) who sang Mor Lam. People from the Southern region wore Norah clothes. The MP candidate from the 3 Southern Provinces talked in Melayu on the stage, and the central region representative really is a farmer. There were also representatives of ethnic groups, the disabled and LGBT who made speeches.
After the election, the Future Forward Party still did not stop. Before, Thai political parties, once the election was over, would turn into parliamentary parties. Political parties shine brightest only during elections. After the election, they immediately go dark and they go just to parliament and to Government House. When the election comes around again, they open up the political parties again. In other countries it’s not like this. Their political parties carry out activities all the time. So Future Forward started work straight after the elections, not only by visiting people to thank them for their votes in various areas, but we held a forum ‘Future is now. Future Forward can start right now’ across the country. During the midst of despair, not knowing if after the election, how much we can really change anything, the Future Forward Party didn’t wait, we started right away with ourselves. We travelled to various provinces, campaigned for new members, held public lectures, organized fundraising activities, held forums to collect problems of various groups of people. Even though today we don’t know if we will be the government or not, we intend on working and collecting this information all the time. After this, we also plan to hold a Future Festival, a cultural festival with movies and music.
On social media, we started a show Future Forward knowledge market, a public lecture, using boards as if we were teaching in a classroom. I taught topics such as Coup d’état 101, Senators 101, Power Succession 101, Thanathorn also taught Financial Budget 101, and another one called Unfinished Democracy since democracy is a political structure without an end. It is changing all the time. Democracy was designed to keep adapting to the current times. This show will reflect the problems of democracy that has to change all the time, as well as Future Forward’s own problems.
We admit straightforwardly that the Future Forward Party is still not complete. If there are any problems, we will say so right away. For example, we have had a primary election within the party but didn’t succeed. We would then explain what the problems and obstacles were. We planned to send in more female and LGBT candidates, but we were not able to reach our goal. Our party has only 12 female MPs and 4 LGBT MPs, which is not as much as we had wanted. We also could not manage the party-list to be alternatively male-female. In all of this we revealed our imperfections; that we’re not people who do something and it succeeds immediately, but Future Forward is a political project that will slowly grow.
The Future Forward Party is trying to conduct politics in a new manner that is different from other parties. If we continue to persevere in our work, redefining new and old politics would happen right away. Many have already started saying, what party is this? I have never seen any party do this before. Why are they tiring themselves out by holding these activities even after the election? For me, this is creating a difference between new and old politics. If other parties see that we do it and it goes well, and any other parties also do the same, Thai politics would improve on its own.
Sixth, determining the time to ‘plant a flag’ or determining a new period for society. If we look back, we have already begun to plant many flags. The first flag is using all newcomers in politics. People didn’t believe that bringing in all newcomers as MPs would be possible. People criticise us for running nobodies just to collect party-list votes for the core members. But in the end, we had 30 constituency MPs. We campaigned without any hua khanaen [local party workers who organize voters using the patronage system]; we knocked on doors. We used a really small amount of budget on campaigning, I believe it is the smallest amount of all the parties. When there was no money, many candidates had to think of creative ways to campaign.
We flagged our policies, such as military reform, decentralisation. We planted a political flag, such as showing the continuation of power according to the constitution of Gen Prayut, inviting a debate further than just elected or non-elected Prime Minister. We framed it so that people would see that this election is choosing between whether they want or don’t want the NCPO to stay in power.
The day we went to receive the official documents certifying us as MPs from the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT), at first I didn’t think of going myself since I didn’t see it as anything important and could authorise someone else to collect the documents in my place. Thanathorn also thought that it would waste working time. But when we thought again, we saw that we can pick some topics to make people see their importance. Before, there were attempts to diminish the voice of the people, with the ECT as an important tool. We then used that opportunity to light a fire. I had guessed that when we received the certificates, according to normal practice, the media would ask us to hold them up for show. Actually, the ECT probably didn’t have any profound ideas by making the documents look beautiful, maybe intending for us to keep them as souvenirs. Then, when it was time for the media to ask us to hold up the documents for some photos, I didn’t show it and said that I became an MP because the people chose me, because of the ballots marked by the people and dropped into the box for Future Forward; the ECT has nothing to do with it, not with this kind of diploma. Or when I was charged for contempt of court instead of just ending the problem, we took the opportunity to start a lecture on contempt of court.
Simply put, at every step, in every crisis, we consider that it is always an opportunity to move people’s thoughts along. We try to use topics that social trends are interested in as the lead and try to adjust our pace all the time. We have to thank modern communication technology that has helped us greatly.
The difficulty of running this kind of party is managing the diversity, especially when the Party is drawing new lines of division, switching from the old game. You probably have to fight with both the old groups in the old game and new groups in the new game. How will we deal with this difficulty?
I will admit that it is really difficult. So far we have tried to survey the social media. The Future Forward Party often gets attacked the most by the group that is often called the “red shirts”. Are you a Democrat? Are you a yellow shirt in disguise? On the other hand, we couldn’t escape from the group that is seen as the “yellow shirts” either. Is this Thaksin’s party, a party in his network, a fake spin-off party? That is, we were attacked by both sides.
Political parties that use Laclau and Mouffe’s theory try not to stick to the orthodox. Not everything starts from revolutionising the working class or the labour unions. If it was Maoism, everything starts from the peasants, or in the Thai way, if anyone wants change just enter a pub, play Songs for Life, plant a red flag in the middle of the city, and end it with Chit Phumisak’s ‘Saeng dao haeng sattha khong’ (Star of Faith) song. On the other hand, new left-wing parties will try to change the words and change the way they speak to pull a large number of people to be able to participate.
One article by Iglesias in the Jacobin magazine said that ‘The Left can win’. Certainly, he doesn’t consent to losing the word Left but the Left like he is must not keep other people away and has to be able to pull people back. He used the word ‘founding people’ or like Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise, had youth volunteers to create a game. It is a game of a hero fighting against gangsters, chasing after and hitting rich capitalists who had evaded tax, hiding their assets in various islands. If you are still stuck with the old left methods, you certainly have no way to do it since you are busy falling in the same old romantic times that once succeeded in the 1940’s and 50’s, interested just in that.
I thought of the book Left-Wing Melancholia by Enzo Traverso. This book says that it is a crisis for the left wing. The left wing will always feel sad in their lives and feel that they’re the losers in a time of loss and go back to thinking about the sweet past like this.
Likewise, when you want to change society, you can start playing songs of Nga Carawan, listen to it so the fire starts, or watch Les Misérables. Oh-oh, the fire’s blazing. You preach and bathe your heart with movies and music, sipping wine and sit and eat happily. You finished watching it, OK, the end, let’s go out and continue business. It has become like this everywhere. In this age, I see that we have to get over this issue. OK, you’re still Left but you have to change your fighting strategies to fit the times. People have a lot of diversity; the diversity of topics is also immense. More people have become liberals with modern technology. That is why you cannot continue to hold onto a red book, demand everyone to sit and recite it, sing songs for life, dress in the 5 ‘y’s. [Translator’s note: The 5 ‘y’s were เสื้อยืด (suea yuet – T-shirt); กางเกงยีน (kangkaeng yin – jeans); กระเป๋าย่าม (krapao yam – cloth shoulder bag); รองเท้ายาง (rong thao yang – rubber flipflops); and ผมหยิก (phom yik – curly hair).] Anyone who does not conform is considered as not up to standard, then they would kept away. This cannot go on. There needs to be a new method.
How will the Future Forward Party deal with this?
Our test is the Party’s diversity. Right now, the test has not been conducted yet because we are still in the initial phase and the Party’s trend is still rising. That means everyone is compromising with each other since the bigger objective has not been reached. But the difficulty will immediately happen if we are the government since in the end you have to decide to do what first and later, choose to do this, choose to not do that. There will definitely be problems here.
Other than this, there is also a culture where different people think differently and have diverse feelings. For example, our LGBT MPs dressed according to their gender to report to Parliament. Then it appeared that on Facebook, a number of people that had voted for Future Forward were not happy. They were not disgusted with sexual diversity but criticised the lack of respect to the place. Or the abolition of the death penalty, and legal abortion; we still have not had the opportunity to take this up as a topic for discussion within the Party. When you have a diverse group of people in the one Party, there will be difficulties in working, but that is our mission to do conceptual work even among people in the Party itself.
For people outside the Party, how do we make them understand the new political line we have drawn? That we are not dividing them vertically into yellow-red like before, but we are dividing them transversally, horizontally. Our important question is to stop the division of sides into yellow-red like before. I have never thought that we have to dissolve the yellow-red shirts. People like to make the criticism that orange is yellow and red mixed together, right? I always assure everyone that it’s not. We thought that orange was modern, and bright. And we’ve also never said we should abandon passing a wholesale amnesty. Many made the criticism, have you forgotten about the dead? Are you stepping on the corpses of the red shirts? I assure you no. But our purpose is to invite you out of the illusion, that there’s only our side who are democratic or there’s only us who monitor corruption. These issues cannot be crudely separated by shirt colours.
I personally believe that politics is doing conceptual work, it is to find more comrades. If you draw a line like this then it stays like this. Gen Prayut will smile. That is why, we have to find some sort of power that can pull people into joining in.
They are completely different problems. Their problem is that normal people are in trouble because of neoliberalism, they have already chosen centre-left and centre-right but neither of them worked. Then there were two options, one was to stop caring about politics. You will see that Europeans don’t go to use their right to vote much. Another option is to vote crazily for the extreme right, just for the fun of it. And so there were efforts to form a new left-wing party, showing that the problem was neoliberalism. The solution is to construct a new ‘people’, together fighting the 1%.
Europe’s advantage is that they have freedom of expression, making it easier for them to work than us. While what is harder for them than us is finding a progressive issue to push forward. Many things that look progressive when we talk about them in Thailand, in Europe are not considered as such because they have already gone further than that. For example, if I started the idea of drawing lots to choose members of parliament in Thailand, I guarantee that people would absolutely protest loudly. But in Europe, people are talking about how the election system gives advantage to the elite, and doesn’t really reflect or promote equality; the ones with a chance to win elections are people with money, education, access to the media. If you really believe that people are equal, there should be a type of parliament that really reflects the needs of normal people, using methods of rotating people to work in parliament by lot, with the basic duty of raising their voices to reflect these needs.
I sat down and thought, for fun, that the Senate that has lots of problems about where it should come from. What if we reduce their power and have everyone draw lots to take turns being a Senator? All citizens have the chance to enter the Senate, and this would make it a real citizens’ council. What will that be like? If I say something like this in Thailand, it will sound like something from another planet, but in Europe, people may see it as progressive. In Thailand right now, just arguing normally on how elections are important is already progressive. It is much easier to find progressive issues in Thailand, just a little bit and it’s already progressive, but it’s difficult when our freedom of expression is limited.
Another thing which is significantly different is that in Thailand, we fight against dictatorship, which we can see in person. But in Western countries, they are fighting against capitalism, corporatism, which cannot be seen in person but is working everywhere in the world. That is why their fight is more difficult. I tried using this to console myself. Many of my foreign friends say that in their country they do not yet even know who they’re fighting against. In our country, it’s clear – military dictatorship lined up right in front of you.
The Future Forward Party said that they want to unite diverse people. Will you sweep in absolutely anyone? Or does there need to be some kind of “minimum” to be able to call yourself a Future Forward member?
In the Future Forward Party manual, we have written the basic values that a Party member has to adhere to. It is a conceptual framework acting as a common pillar among Party members. For example, defending and protecting rights and freedoms, respecting human dignity, respecting diversity, no discrimination whether on sex, nationality, religion, or age, as well as opposing dictatorship and trying to build creative discussions to form public opinion. If you are still not like this, you will have to try.
If we review our own performance, we have done many things well, and there are also some things that are not as complete as we had intended. For example, sexist speech. Sometimes I still hear people talking as if we are in a society that is used to patriarchy. We have to warn each other. Our party is bringing about a new politics, new thinking, into Thailand. We are not only fighting against the outside, but also the inside, since the culture of the whole country is old. We have to slowly learn case by case. When we had a seminar, MPs tried to play a video for us to show how discussion in parliament like this is good or bad, and how. For example, the case where the Speaker of the parliament expressed sexual insults: ‘Please sit down, dear, you are the most beautiful former celebrity, now sit down.’ Another woman then got up to protest, ‘I’m younger and more beautiful, Mr Speaker has to let me speak first.’ This becomes insult upon insult. The male Speaker insults females, and a female MP herself then expresses another insult. We then tell them not to act like this.
In implementing the politics of Future Forward that come to horizontal politics in a different way, how will the definitions of left-right in Thai politics change?
In the Western way of thinking, things have been divided into left-right for a long time. Initially, the division into left-right happened from the progressives sitting on the left side of parliament while the conservatives sat on the right. But when the End of Ideology arrived, almost all countries walked down the path of liberal democracy. The matter of left-right became more an economic matter. The economic left is where the state has the power to intervene, emphasising equality. The economic right is where the state does not have much power, and lets the economy follow market mechanisms.
In Thailand’s case, we do not have any of these issues at all. We are fighting between democracy and dictatorship; we still do not have the opportunity to debate about left-right in economic terms. I believe that out of the many people who support democracy and do not like military dictatorship, many are right-wing. The left wing in terms of economics is very small in Thailand. There are also not many areas to speak in public because people will always say that it’s impossible. When our problem is still stuck at democracy-dictatorship with no serious debate on left-right in economic terms, that makes us quite different from Europe.
The Future Forward Party has been established for one whole year since the large meeting, from theoretical concepts to real practical experience, once through the election battlefield. What problems do you see? What is the bottleneck that’s making it difficult to break through, what is the ceiling stopping you from rising?
The first limitation is the political party law, the election law, and constitutional law. This is an empirical limitation that we can see most clearly. We want to hold various activities that are more ground-breaking, or sell things online, and we cannot do it. It makes us waste time, having to continuously solve all the petty little problems. This still does not include all the messy court cases. It reduces our ability to do aggressive or creative work, forcing us to do defensive work, which is to defend the cases, protecting ourselves from threats by using the law as a tool all the time. We have wasted a lot of brain power on this, instead of being able to use it on creative work.
The second limitation. We have to fight under a dictatorial society; there is still an authoritarian culture overshadowing us. Freedom of expression does not exist to its fullest. When it can’t exist to its fullest, there needs to be a compromise. The issue is then on what issues, how far, and how you will compromise.
For me, the fact that we have established a political party to fight within the system, run in the election, worked in parliament, been under the larger system of government that exists now; it’s already a compromise in itself. But the problem is that in political work like this, how far can you push progressive topics? Or is the mission to remove the military from politics first, bringing democracy back first? When this has succeeded, society can start speaking again on how they will debate various topics. Right now, it’s like we are shut in a dark room, with no chance to discuss any public issues since those in power have taken over everything. Look at the atmosphere during the election. In debates, all parties enjoyed talking about their public policies but once the election was over, the fire went out since the military is still in power.
Nowadays, how have you planned to make the Party into an institution?
We have to work with consistent ideas. Since Thanathorn grew up in the industrial business sector, he has always believed in the potential of people. I have argued with him on this many times. He said we have to trust people. We give them the work and just let them do it. Don’t think so much, it’s a waste of time, just do it. But I often view things in the dimension of establishing a political party in a country with crazy rules everywhere. That forces us to be careful about being attacked on this, on that. When we think about pushing forward the potential of our people in various fields, we always feel worried whether it will be a danger to the Party. Will we get attacked?
Actually, the limitation inside is connected to the outside as well. The legal system, political parties and independent organisations that surround us are always ready to stab us. If Future Forward was founded in a country that is more open than this, I think we could do a lot more things and a lot faster than this.
Right now, both Thanathorn and you, Piyabutr, are being attacked with all sorts of things. If Future Forward no longer has Thanathorn and Piyabutr, what would it be like?
Let’s give the easiest example. They can ban Thanathorn and me from parliament. Neither of us may be able to work as MPs. We would then do Party work, keep driving the Party forward, campaign for more party members, hold forums, listen to problems and opinions of brothers and sisters all across the country, and do concept work with the people. The advantage is we actually have more time to make the Party stronger as we wanted, and importantly, more flexible. We’re no longer under the framework of formal rules like working in parliament.
But we have to admit that Thailand’s systemic problem is that we do not push people to show their potential. Each person in all fields, not just politics, is pressed down by saying that they can or can’t do this, would doing it look good, would it be appropriate? Whether they are oppressed by values or laws, the system of this country has traits that make people not brave enough to stand up and show their own abilities. It encourages people to be submissive. It does not allow people to shine like a star, only allowing them to be planets that need to find somewhere to cling onto, always circling around a star.
I believe that in society there are many people full of potential, but they have this worry in their hearts about whether can they speak, and if they say it, will it be wrong? This kind of question reflects the law system that had been designed that way, and when dictatorship stays in power for a long time, people’s courage to decide to do the right thing decreases. Before when we want to do something, we just do it normally. But now when we do anything, we have to sit down and think if we can do it or not, if it’s wrong or not. This is the outside factor that makes the Party unable to work at full efficiency. If the law was more open, we could go even farther.
And if they attack to the point of dissolving the Party, what would Future Forward do then?
Right now, I have not thought about the Party being dissolved at all. I think we can still go on. If the conservative elite think of dissolving the Future Forward Party because they want to get rid of ideas like those of Thanathorn-Piyabutr, like those of Future Forward, then dissolving the Party is not the solution. A political party is a legal entity. You can only dissolve the legal entity but you cannot dissolve people’s ideas. Another example close at hand, you have already dissolved 3-4 parties but people still choose them. If the conservative elite takes a long view, they would even need to think that ideas like Future Forward have really come about in society. You have to accept that it is a phenomenon that really occurred in this election, and you have to find a way to talk about what the ‘future forward’ that they will be writing together for this country will be like.
I have always asserted that the Future Forward Party was not founded for the purpose of wiping out or overthrowing anything, no way. I believe if people think like this, they would not build a party to run in the election. Creating a political party is to unify public opinion and radiate these public opinions for the public to see. They do not have to worry that we risk being threatened. We are just people who want to change Thai society for the better, and this desire is not just Thanathorn’s or mine. There are many people in society who want change. This is not a trend, but a phenomenon.
We wanted to invite society to think together on whether we really want it to be like this, or will we let the military carry on governing the country like this, or do we want this inequality which continues to widen like this, do we want centralisation of power like this, do we want an education without a future like this for our children. I think these are common problems for all of us, and all of us are our fellow countrymen. We should sit down and find a solution together. Don’t look at your fellow countrymen as a danger. We have reached this point because before, you went to play around and pointed at this person and that person as threats, and then you arrested them. It’s already been proven that can’t be fixed. You got rid of their leaders, but their ideas, feelings and wants still exist. That is why, it is better to accept the truth. That it’s time to change. Our country has been like this for 15 years already. It can’t go on.
The Future Forward Party defines itself as a new path that wishes to unify all sides to redefine politics, but no small number of people see the two Party leaders as part of the conflict, or as ones who are themselves the cause of the conflict. How will Future Forward deal with this problem?
We created a new political party from nothing, not like all the already existing political parties. We cannot escape that something newly designed will be criticised, from things that have already existed, and from political parties of all sides and colours, because we are creating something new. Of course, there were some instances, sometimes, of the old set of conflicts where we had some role. That is a normal thing where we participated as another citizen. Defending the government that came from an election, opposing coups d’état, opposing massacres in the middle of the metropolis; that’s not about colours or sides. It’s about doing what is right. That is why it’s not right to say that we’re in the same old set of conflicts.
We know well that in a coup, it is not that all of a sudden, a general wants to seize power so he wakes up in the morning and drives a tank to take over. This world would not accept it. They have to create a story, make up something to destroy the political legitimacy of the former person in power. They have to destroy the legitimacy of the parliamentary system so they could create a new legitimacy. That is why we thought, if we do politics well, then the military would not be able to seize power. If your government is free from corruption, did not wrongfully use the voice of the majority, did not administer the country in a way that sees everyone as their subordinates, does not act like the country is a limited company, then we can protect this political battlefield, having not created any conditions for the army to easily use as an excuse to seize power.
So for us to come out to establish a new party was to do politics work in a new manner. One side is to criticise what already exists. I don’t think the same old characters in the same old political parties can take Thailand out of this set of conflicts. I don’t know if I can be considered a new or old character, but our methods – they are definitely new.
One year Future Forward, what success do you think of as most progressive?
It may not be one certain topic or policy, but rather the general overview in the creation of a new kind of party. Before, there have been many people who dreamed of having a small party as an alternative. Some have tried to do it, but did not succeed. I think that Future Forward is the progress that we succeeded in achieving at a certain level. We can show others that creating such a party is possible, from a starting point that was thought to be impossible. This is a very important matter. I always repeat that politics is what is possible. If we believe it is possible, just starting to do it makes things move.
We have been challenged all along the way. Since the first day. … It’s impossible to establish a political party. It’s impossible to have normal people run for MP . It’s impossible to spend only this much budget on campaigning. It’s impossible not to use election canvassers. When we enter parliament, it’s impossible without experience in parliament. It’s impossible not to have professional politicians tutor us. … We must continue to prove ourselves, continue to challenge ourselves. For me, Future Forward’s success in the first year is that we attempted to do something people thought was impossible and made it possible.
Interviewed on 16 April 2019