Monday, August 26, 2019

Thanathorn’s acid test: The real deal or just another political opportunist?

Apr 30. 2019
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By Tulsathit Taptim
The Nation

1,570 Viewed

Thanathorn Juangroonruangkit is flying high politically, but the question of why the Future Forward Party leader did not fly home on January 8 could send him crashing down. It could also send him soaring even higher, though, depending on how his share transfer controversy is settled.

The outcome may rest with Dtac, the telecom operator holding his mobile phone records. Thanathorn’s accusers say there is no way he had time to travel by road from Buri Ram to Bangkok on the January 8 deadline to sign the transfer of his media shares to his mother.

Unless his chauffeur was driving at 200 kilometres per hour, that is.

Thanathorn’s response? Check with Dtac and see where I was on the afternoon of January 8, he told veteran journalist Suthichai Yoon in an interview.

Dtac responded that any request for Thanathorn’s phone records had to come from the man himself; nobody else could check.

It’s an extremely important issue. Even if Thanathorn ends up having his election candidacy nullified, the events of January 8 will go a long way toward defining his political fate. Being disqualified for an oversight regarding his V-Luck Media shares would make him a political martyr. Telling a lie to protect himself or being involved in fabricating evidence could hound him for a long, long time.

The country is divided over Thanathorn’s case, just as it remains split over Thaksin Shinawatra. But until the questions over Thanathorn’s share transfer document came along, there was a key difference between the two. Thaksin was popular, connected with unorthodox ideology and involved in what courts ruled to be acts of dishonesty. Thanathorn was also popular and identified himself with controversial ideology, but he was never found involved in dishonourable practices.

Thanathorn has offered a few reasons for why he chose not to fly home on January 8. The fact that his party secretary-general did fly back on the same day has aroused scepticism, but the Future Forward leader still deserves the benefit of the doubt. However it’s now up to Thanathorn to back up his road-trip claim with evidence.

He is wrong on two major points here. The first is his often-invoked argument that the “burden of proof” rests with his accusers. This is not a case merely of contending opinions that are finely balanced. This is a case that can be solidified or weakened by facts, so he cannot and should not avoid the burden of rebuttal. His argument, after all, is not even good for democracy.

The second point is his claim that the media are nitpicking to attack him. “Welcome to politics” is probably the best response to that. Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan may have been let off the legal hook over his luxury watch collection, but “nitpicking” media and social media have made sure his status is no longer what it was. Democracy, something Thanathorn apparently cherishes, requires the help of nosy and tenacious media more than anything else.

Thanathorn is at a crossroads. Being immensely popular does not make one a great political leader. 

Apart from realising that being an MP is not everything, he may need to sit back and think about what is really good for democracy. The leader of the Future Forward Party has taken a public stand against military intervention in politics, but his opinions on the obvious flaws in the system he advocates are far from clear. He appears to half-heartedly criticise Thaksin, conceding that he may have done a few things wrong, but adding that the ousted premier headed a democratic system that was not given enough time. This is where Thanathorn needs to be bolder if he really wants to take Thailand’s future forward.

He radiates youth, which tends to be associated with “democracy at all costs”. But with popularity and power comes responsibility. As a political leader, Thanathorn has a duty to ensure that the democracy people fight for is worth the battle. It is easy to attack military coups, because the negative consequences they bring are so well known. Everyone from the man on the street to flamboyant academics is able to put their finger on what is wrong and what can go wrong. It’s a lot harder, though, to dissect and make painful changes to a system that the Future Forward leader and his fan base so crave.

But first, Thanathorn needs to be different, not just look different. Which is why the next few days are crucial to his fate. If he emerges from the January 8 controversy unscathed, he will remain on a dignified political path regardless of what happens to his MP status. If he does not, he won’t be able to differentiate himself no matter how popular he remains. 

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