Isaan’s future: Thanathorn on moving the region forward

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkij, a former student activist turned billionaire auto-parts tycoon, is on a mission to radically transform Thai society. On a visit to the Northeast in April, the co-founder of the new and broadly reformist Future Forward Party revealed his views on inequality, decentralization, and the dangers of authoritarianism.

His visit to Khon Kaen was part of a whirlwind tour through the major provincial cities across the country to get the lay of the land outside of Bangkok on his first foray into politics. It is a path well trodden by those wishing to catapult themselves into power by borrowing the rural vote, but few before him have criticized the status quo so openly while doing so.

Straight in at the deep end

By his own telling, Thanathorn prefers to jump in at the deep end, almost to the point of contradiction. As a student activist, he loathed large corporations and the government, blaming them for environmental and social destruction. Yet prior to forming a political party this year with sights firmly set on government, Thanathorn was himself head of a large industrial concern.

Not that he had planned to end up in that position. Thanathorn cut his political teeth by campaigning for the land and compensation rights of villagers affected by the Pak Mun dam in Ubon Ratchathani Province. For Thanathorn, the construction of this dam exemplified the government unaccountability and crony-capitalism that peaked with the 1997 economic crisis.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit (39) has grabbed headlines since he co-founded the Future Forward Party this year, but among people in the Northeast he is still virtually unknown.

As a major cheerleader for the 1997 constitution, he campaigned to raise awareness of the sweeping constitutional reforms among fellow students at Thammasat University and further afield in Ubon Ratchathani and Songkhla. In 1999 he was elected president of the Thammasat Student Union (TSU) and in 2000 he became the deputy-secretary general of the Student Federation of Thailand (SFT). If his upbringing was privileged, mercantile, and allied to the establishment, Thanathorn seemed determined to cut his future from an entirely different cloth.

Upon graduating with a joint-honors engineering degree from both Thammasat University and Nottingham University, Thanathorn chose a path seemingly calculated take him even further away from the boardroom. He joined the UN as a development worker in Algeria instead of taking the default options of further study in the UK or entering the family business.

But fate had other plans. While Thanathorn was in Algeria his father was diagnosed with cancer, and he returned to care for his father in Thailand on the insistence of his mother. Though he persisted with left-field political activism through NGO networks such as Friends of The People and the Assembly of The Poor, within six months his father had died and Thanathorn found himself in charge of Thai Summit Group.

Groomed for leadership by a stint at the helm of Thai Summit Group, his return to politics was perhaps inevitable, given his penchant for the underdog. His views on Isaan likely spring from this instinct. Newly elected as party leader by unanimous decision at the Future Forward Party’s first convention last week, he is now fully empowered to match deeds to his words.

All red tape leads to Bangkok

At a public forum at Khon Kaen University in April, Thanathorn lambasts the widespread and oft-repeated trope that Isaan is poor because Isaan people are workshy and feckless. As Thanathorn sees it, the Northeast owes its persistent underdevelopment and poverty to the long-term extraction of its resources to serve the growth of Bangkok.

“Isaan people have been culturally, politically, and economically oppressed and exploited by Bangkok to the point that Isaan is not able to realize its true capabilities,” Thanathorn argues “I don’t believe at all that the vicious cycle of poverty, pain, and ignorance is because Isaan people are lazy.”

According to him, the key question for Isaan right now is why Isaan people continue to migrate to Bangkok or other regions in search of good quality work and, by extension, why is there a dearth of career-worthy work in the region? The answer he gave is that centralized bureaucracy is the main barrier to the widespread creation of decent livelihoods in the Northeast.

Thanathorn claims to speak from direct experience; when having spoken personally with the enterprises behind Khon Kaen city’s proposed light rail system, he discovered that the approval process by the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Interior would take three and a half years. He joked that at this rate it would take 220 years for Thailand to have a nationwide rail network.

Apart from stifling bureaucracy, another reason that Thanatorn cited for Isaan’s chronic underdevelopment is the central government’s refusal to devolve some administrative power to the local people. Thanathorn reiterated that not only are Isaan people not stupid, they are notable for their grit and willingness to go to great lengths to create a better future, he said in reference to the sizeable Isaan diaspora in Thailand.

“We must remove the bureaucratic obstacles that prevent the provinces of all regions, including Isaan, from developing themselves,” Thanathorn insists.

Military matters

When questioned by the audience about his views on military conscription, Thanathorn replied that military conscription is a part of the authoritarian culture that has long stymied the progress of Thai society. To Thanathorn, conscription is a symptom a conservatism that wants society to bend and submit to the power of the state unquestioningly.

“Habitual submission to authority is dangerous because it leads to unquestioning acceptance of the status quo. You end up tamed and neutered of the belief that you have the power to change anything,” he argued. “That’s not much of a future for society, and military conscription is a perpetuation of that culture.”

While personnel are routinely rotated through the three southernmost provinces on a national basis, volunteers for southern deployment–lured by the danger pay and improved promotion prospects that operational tours bring–are disproportionately from Isaan. As Thailand’s poorest and most populous region, Isaan has long supplied the bulk of Thai military manpower. This underscores Thanathorn’s point about the lack of quality career options in Isaan.

Levelling the playing field

Thanathorn has set his sights on completely overhauling the taxation system to address rising inequality. Redistributing wealth through taxes on land holdings, corporate stockholdings, and removing tax breaks that unfairly benefit massive capital investments at the expense of other taxpayers will be his three-pronged attack on an inequitable society.

The proposed land tax will apply to corporations that speculatively sit on massive land holdings that remain vacant and unutilized for long periods of time. This is a popular investment tactic among the rich which creates land scarcity and drives up the cost of land and housing in general, leaving ordinary people priced out of the housing market.

“The people who buy land and just sit on it must be taxed, and if they don’t pay the tax they must sell the land. This will increase land transactions and property prices will come down,” Thanathorn argues.

He wants to abolish certain investment privileges because the corporations making massive capital investments are allowed to get away without paying taxes, yet the tax burden falls upon small to medium enterprises.

The stockholdings of corporations should also be taxed because, as it stands, corporations receive tax waivers for the investing, buying, and selling stocks, which gives them an unfair advantage over the rest of society, Thanathorn notes.

Thanatorn goes on to say that he supports the introduction of comprehensive services to level the playing field for youth because inequality in society is a product of people being born with different levels of opportunity; some people are born into poor families, some are born into families with debt, and others are born into families with an abundance of resources at their disposal. Thanathorn thinks that society should prioritise the provision of equal access to resources and opportunities during childhood. Thanathorn suggested that as a starting point, the government could put away 1,000 – 1,200 baht for each newborn. Upon reaching the age of 12, the child would receive monthly payments from this fund directly into their own bank account.

“I think this will really help to make things easier for parents, and will at least allow children to begin life on a somewhat equal footing with each other, instead of starting life at a severe handicap or zero,” he says.

The old age welfare payment of 600 baht per month should be drastically increased because some elderly people do not have offspring to care for them, and nor do they have sufficient savings. These senior citizens subsist with barely any human dignity; some of them must beg for food from the temples to survive, Thanthorn notes. Those who do have children or grandchildren must wait to receive remittances from them to survive, which in turn places a financial handicap on the younger generations. With so many Isaan folk working elsewhere, no region is more afflicted by this problem than the Northeast.

“I believe that a welfare state will be capable of solving the problem of inequality in society. At the very least, everyone in society deserves to live with dignity and humanity. That’s the kind of society that I want to live in.”

All of this will require nothing short of constitutional reform, which Thanathorn has declared to be a priority for the Future Forward Party. This has earned him the ire of the establishment, and ensured that his political life will start behind the eight-ball. It remains to be seen whether this shared experience will strike a chord with Isaan voters.