A New Vision for Thailand: Interview with Pita Limjaroenrat, Member of the Thai House of Representatives and Former Leader of the Move Forward Party

A New Vision for Thailand: Interview with Pita Limjaroenrat, Member of the Thai House of Representatives and Former Leader of the Move Forward Party

. 10 min read

Pita Limjaroenrat was the Prime Ministerial Candidate of the Move Forward Party in Thailand’s May 2023 elections. Under Pita, Move Forward captured the majority of votes and seats in the Thai parliament, but institutional barriers prevented his ascension to Prime Minister. Nevertheless, his vision for a demilitarized, demonopolized, and decentralized Thailand continues to resonate. Pita is a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School and MIT Sloan School of Management, and he was named to the TIME100 Next List in 2023.

Your party, Move Forward, won a plurality of seats in the 2023 elections, with 38 percent of the vote. Where do you think this mass support came from, and what does the landscape of public opinion look like now, nine months later?

We campaigned on the vision of changing Thailand structurally. Our vision can be summarized in three Ds, which [are] demilitarize, decentralize, and demonopolize. We argue that in order to achieve the equality that Thailand deserves, we need to make sure that we keep the military out of politics, and make sure [that] it’s a professional military that defends the country from outside threats and also updates itself with current security challenges, like cybersecurity, for example. And then, decentralize: after COVID, we argued that Bangkok is not Thailand, and Thailand is not Bangkok. The economy and the national budget [have] to be decentralized so that we have some other provinces that are of the same caliber as Bangkok, spread [throughout] Thailand. And the third one, demonopolize, is to make sure that no longer are there barriers to entry for several industries that are conquered by conglomerates, [and to bring about] the kind of legal changes that allow [for] liquor liberalization, for example. That will allow the economy to grow from the bottom up and not from the top down.

[In terms of] the contribution to our victory, I think there was also internal capabilities and [the] external environment. [The] external environment is that people are so fed up with the “lost decade” in the past nine to 10 years under the military coup, under the military junta, and also continuations of power in several mechanisms such as the current constitution, independent organizations, [and] appointed senators. [The] current political landscape over the past year is the politics of appointed versus elected. I'm from the elected lower house, but there [are] also senators appointed by the military junta, who can also choose the prime minister. And because of that, they [can] sort of veto the choice of the people in parliament. That's what people are fed up with.

So, when you combine these internal capabilities of ours and [the] external environment of people being so fed up with inertia and with the status quo, that becomes our victory in the election. But again, it does not translate into governance here in Thailand because of all the mechanisms that were being put in after the military coup maybe four or five years ago. And the effects [are] still lingering today.

That last part of your question was about how people feel now, nine months after the election. I think it's mixed feelings. Some people are still hopeful and say they can wait for the next election. [In] the last election, some traveled all the way from Cambridge in America, from Germany, from Japan, from South Africa, to Bangkok to vote. The voting turnout was [a] historical 76 percent, which is very high [by] Thai standards. People said that they'll wait it out and make sure that we win more next time, because this time, even if we won by 40 percent, it was not enough to form a government because of the extraordinary mechanisms outside of electoral politics.

As you pointed out, Thailand’s National Assembly consists of 500 elected members of parliament and 250 unelected senators appointed by the military. You needed 376 of the 750 total votes to be elected prime minister, but fell just short with 324 thanks to just five percent of senators voting for you. What do you think it will take for a progressive party to get past the Senate’s de facto veto power, and what does this structure mean for Thai democracy?

To be clear, the appointed senators were given the authority to choose the prime minister for five years. [The] current senators will expire in May this year, so they will not be able to choose the prime minister anymore. So, ceteris paribus, if everything stays constant like this, in the next election, the senators would not be able to choose a prime minister like last year. That's [a] very specific answer to your question.

However, I can smell that something is brewing. If they've been doing everything so that they can continue in their power for 10 years, they're not going to let go now. You know, there will probably [be] some sort of mechanisms that I have to overcome in order for us to be able to both win the election and form [a] government, and finally govern and execute the policies that we promised the people of Thailand. Thailand has been very famous in terms of the vicious cycle of elections and “other means.” I have to call it “other means”: it could be military coups, it could be that the Constitutional Court of Thailand dissolves political parties. I want to say five or six political parties [were] disbanded during the past 20 years, since I [became] a member of Harvard back in 2006. So I would say maybe at the minimum five or six parties were dissolved. Also, political assassination, in the sense of stripping away the right to run for office, happens on a vicious cycle basis, maybe every five or 10 years. Something like that will happen, and that's currently what we're facing right now.

Thailand has had the highest number of successful coups of any country in the world since 1945. The massive protests in 2020 were caused by a laundry list of issues, from lèse-majesté (forbidding defamation of the Thai monarchy), to democratic backsliding, to corruption, to the COVID-19 pandemic, before state backlash gradually suppressed demonstrations. How can Thailand break out of this “vicious cycle,” as you call it, of crises and crackdowns?

I haven't lost hope. During my education back at the Kennedy School [with] my friends from South Korea [and] Indonesia, we could argue about these countries—no country is perfect. We don’t look just within our focus of Thailand. If we don't have diverse views, if we don't look at it comprehensively, then we might just give up, right? Looking [at] South Korea, for example, they had [many years of] military dictatorship. But there [is a] chance that you accumulate small victories, bit by bit, and eventually, once you break away from that kind of apparatus, you could be a country with a strong democratic foundation. Then, you can develop the economy, both [in] the high tech industry and high touch industry.

South Korea and Indonesia arguably proved that they could get out of military domination and prosper and thrive [as] strong democracies. Once you've reached that stage, it's hard for you to turn back. But it's not yet time for Thailand, and we just have to be patient and keep doing what we're doing. [We have to] make sure that it's a nonviolent method and nonviolent means: it's not organizing systematic protests against the government in an attempt to overthrow the government so that I get to become prime minister. That's not our part at all. We want to make sure that sustainable change can be achieved within the parliament itself. So we'll stick to these nonviolent means and make sure it's a parliamentary change, rather than violent or abrupt disorder in the country.

Image courtesy of Pita Limjaroenrat.

You are currently facing a petition to dissolve Move Forward in addition to a separate suspended sentence for holding an unlawful rally, both related to accusations of violating Thailand’s lèse-majesté law. You ran in 2023 pledging to reform this law, which forbids defamation of the Thai monarchy. Why has this become such a key issue, and how do you and the party plan to address these legal blows?

Well, let me reassess your question. To me, it's almost like three layers now. The first layer [is the] morality case with the Anti-Corruption [Commission], [which] is for a lifetime [ban]. The second layer is the Constitutional Court and the risk of dissolving the party. And then the core layer is the peaceful assembly maybe four years ago, before the [dissolution] of the Future Forward Party. We have to really fight these cases with a lot of preparation, to show the consistency of the law and collection of facts, to prove that [we were] right. Right to assembly is part of democracy. Control of the agenda is part of democracy. And when we organize, we organize according to the law. Other people who organized protests at the same location as us were either not punished or were only being fined. It's only me that's being [given a] suspended sentence for four months.

So we ask for the consistency of ruling and the standard of the verdict, not just [punishment] because I'm considered an enemy of the state and they conduct lawfare against me. We have [prepared] a legal team, looking back at the previous rulings at the same location, with the same peaceful protests. It was a flash mob for only 40 minutes: it's not like we caused a lot of disobedience in the society. But I think we have to ask for consistency and proportionality of law when it comes to these things.

On the question about lèse-majesté, I think our goal was very clear. We tried to communicate it everywhere we could that we want Thailand to remain a constitutional monarchy. We want to make sure that the monarchy is being revered and kept out of politics, and not used [as] a weapon to destroy a political opponent. “Leave the monarchy out of politics” was the message. [Some] people just didn't want to listen, or misunderstood in some way, [and] they wanted to make sure that this kind of thing is never allowed in this country. I think it's a kind of social experiment to make sure that we find a common ground and build consensus, and we felt like parliament was a good place for consensus building for us to move the entire country and every institution forward into the 21st century.

Moving to foreign policy, you have said that Thais are “increasingly affected by the outside world,” owing to events such as rising costs for fertilizer and animal feed as well as Thai workers affected by the Israel-Hamas war. How do you think Thailand should react to these outside shocks, and what differentiates your vision for Thai foreign policy from the governments of the past 10 years?

I think in foreign policy, no words, no weight. Sometimes we have to be quiet. Sometimes we have to speak our values. But it doesn't mean that we have to dodge problems all the time. I think the direction of my administration's foreign policy will be different in the sense that it will preempt crises, will be part of the solution before the crisis could happen, or try to mitigate the situation, rather than sit back and let all the effects of the international world order come to our position.

Looking back to the Indonesian example, once again, it was President Jokowi [Indonesian president Joko Widodo] that tried to approach both President Zelenskyy and President Putin to make sure that [the economic effects of the war in Ukraine] don’t escalate into something else, because the price of energy, soybeans, and corn affects the price of palm oil and inflation in Indonesia as well. So instead of sitting back and just being the audience, I think, ASEAN as a whole, you know, [needs to work together] as a region. I think Thailand alone is probably not enough. Indonesia alone, even if it's the third largest democratic country in the world, is not enough. Singapore is not enough. But if the entire ASEAN gets back to their principles and their historical achievement of ASEAN centrality, then there's a lot that they could achieve together.

So my step-by-step process is probably to make sure we announce to the world that Thailand is back, and Thailand is ready to contribute to foreign policy. Then, [we can] get together with the like-minded ASEAN members to work out our differences, so that we could have centrality and [a] kind of critical mass. Once we combine, it's 600 million people with a sizable chunk of [the] economy. So when we speak up, I think we could be a middle power rather than just leaving it to a particular country [like] Thailand to solve one thing. Singapore might think one thing about Myanmar and Malaysia might think one thing about Myanmar. [The] Philippines might think one thing about the South China Sea. Thailand might have a different approach. But if we all combine, then we'll have a strong solid base to make sure that the international world order is upheld. Many things are in conflict at the moment, [but] there [are] international norms and international conventions that allow [for] conflict management.

Finally, you have mentioned wanting to be a politician since you were in your 20s. What have you learned about politics and democracy since then, particularly in these last couple of years? How have your experiences both in Thailand and abroad affected your desire to pursue public office?

I think I would quote President Obama. When I was in America, 2006, 2008-ish, a lot of my classmates were helping him out with [the] campaign either in Boston or somewhere [else]. And I think President Obama said that democracy is a zigzag, not a straight line. I feel like that’s happening all around the world. I mean, this year will be quite a year, because there's so many elections going on. We've seen quite a critical election in Europe, the Finnish presidential election. [We’ve seen] what happened in Taiwan, and Indonesia [will have elections on] February 14. India will have something, Brazil will have local elections, and then the Americans in November.

So it's kind of a critical year for the state of democracy and the economy as a whole, and it's going to be a zigzag, because democratic backsliding is really happening all around the world. Far-right ideology is coming back, maybe after COVID and also geopolitical rivalry, and that kind of democratic backsliding is happening all around the world. People have to work together to make sure that we prevent these kinds of things from happening and to make sure that we remain united as ASEAN, united as Asia, and united as the world, because it could be a slippery slope. It could be a domino effect that once something happens, next [there] will be an uprising in one part of the world, and then [there] will be a lot more chaos all around the world.

So it's not a straight line, but we want to make sure that we come back to these institutional principles in the international world order, that right makes might and might doesn't make right. If we don't stick to this, and we [don’t stop] far-right ideology [from coming] back, it will be a slippery slope for the world.

Varada spoke with Pita on February 12, 2024. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.