Interview by Burapa Lekluanngarm

On his first visit to the Northeast, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the 39-year-old co-founder of the Future Forward Party, talks to The Isaan Record about decentralization, communities’ right to self-government and how to tackle Thailand’s corruption problem by giving people access to state information.

The Northeast is facing land rights disputes and various problems in natural resource management. Many communities have been affected by the government’s crackdown on forest encroachment, especially those who have been living in areas long time before they were announced national forest reserves.

Mr. Thanathorn argues that forest communities must have the power to manage the forest by themselves. If the communities are allowed to self-manage their areas, they can take care of the forests in a sustainable way because they live off the forests. If the communities damage the forests, they are also damaging their own future. Untouched forest areas should be managed by the Royal Forest Department, he says.

On April 20, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit presented the progressive platform of his Future Forward Party at an event at Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Engineering.

There are several mining projects in the Northeast, for example the gold mine in Loei Province and potash mining explorations in Sakon Nakhon Province. In all of these projects, public participation has been very limited which has led to several conflicts.

Mr. Thanathorn acknowledges that he has little knowledge about the mining issue in the region. However, he believes that large state project must go through fair and transparent public hearings. There also must be an environmental impact assessment or EIA and a environmental health impact assessment or EHIA, he argued.

There have many human rights violations in the Northeast. Activists have repeatedly been hit with lawsuits, for example during the anti-constitution campaign in 2016 or the royal defamation case of student activist student activist Jatupat “Pai Dao Din” Boonpattararaksa. What’s your position on these cases?

Mr. Thanathorn calls on the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to treat these cases as expressions of political dissent, as opinions that are different from those in power.

He believes that the activists have been acting with the motivation to improve the country. None of them harbor ill intentions for the nation. For this reason, the NCPO should revoke all political cases because they only represent criticism of the government.

“As Thai society is getting ready for elections, the NCPO should cancel all lawsuits. Don’t damage people’s future and their good hopes for the nation,” he urges.

In principle, the power of the government should be separated in three branches of power: the parliament, the government and the courts. But in reality, the power of the courts seems to be disconnected from the people.

Mr. Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, co-founder of the Future Forward Party, already made proposals to reform the country’s judiciary, Mr. Thanathorn says.

Last month, Mr. Piyabutr made 10 proposals to reform the laws governing the judiciary. He proposes that judges of the supreme court and constitutional court need to be nominated by the cabinet and approved by the parliament.

The Northeast, like other regions, suffers from a skewed form of centralization. It is governed by bureaucrats from the central region while local administration remains weak.

“We see that there are too many high-level bureaucrats. The bureaucracy is a problem, both in terms of work efficiency and transparency. It also shuts out and suppresses the power of the local level.”

It will be difficult for the country to move forward and develop if there is no opportunity for people on the local level to govern themselves. Mr. Thanathorn believes that the central government’s influence should decrease while giving more power to local administrative bodies. In the future, the strength to move the country forward will depend on the local level, he argues.

“Our party supports decentralization of power by giving local communities the right to full self-government. This is the future of Thailand,” Mr. Thanathorn predicts.

The Future Forward Party co-founder underlines his belief in decentralization with the call for provincial governors to be elected by the people. It is not the question whether or not individual provinces are ready to choose their governors. Provinces who are not ready should not be holding back provinces like Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen and Phuket, Mr. Thanathorn argues.

“Don’t let these province forgo the opportunity because other provinces are not ready,” he says. “If one province can do, others will immediately follow.

Mr. Thanathorn is convinced that the election of provincial governors will lead to a more efficient government that can bring solutions to several problems in a more rapid fashion.

The question of Thailand’s bureaucracy is tied to the issue of corruption. After being in power for almost four years, do you believe the military government has succeed in tackling the country’s problem of corruption?

“The people currently in power aren’t serious about tackling corruption.Corruption has been used as a political tool to undermine the opposition. If anyone was really serious about corruption, our prisons would be full of convicted wrongdoers. The problem is that there aren’t any leading politicians or business people who were prosecuted for corruption.

This is not surprising in a country in which people are not equal, and people in power, those who have money, don’t have to follow the law. Corruption is used as an accusation to play political games. If the government of Mr. Prayuth was serious about corruption, they should start with the luxury watches [of Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan.]”

“I don’t believe that the NCPO government is serious about corruption. And I’d like to see those who are calling to fight corruption to apply it to everyone, not only to Mr. Thaksin. It shouldn’t matter how much power you have or how rich you are. In the weighing of justice, everyone needs to be equal. That’s something I’d like to see.”

How does the Future Forward Party plan to address the issue of corruption?

“In order to manage this problem, we propose the use of technology.”

The Future Forward Party wants to follow an Open Government approach by giving people access to information and proceedings of the government. Although the 1997 constitution enabled citizen to access government information through the Official Information Act, there were still problems in the law’s enforcement, Mr. Thanathorn notes. It remained difficult to gain access to official information because almost every state agency is afraid of public scrutiny. There is still conviction among officials that state agencies should have the power keep information secret, Mr. Thanathorn says. He believes that giving people easy access to state information will empower people to better scrutinize the government and state officials.

“But if we believe that the state sector is based on people’s taxes, information of the state should also belong to the people,” Mr. Thanathorn insists.

The Northeast has been the political stronghold of the Pheu Thai Party for some time. Many people here admire the former prime ministers Mr. Thaksin and Ms. Yingluck. Why should Isaan people vote for the Future Forward Party?

“This issue the people should decide for themselves. If they don’t want anything to change in the future, they should vote for the old parties,” says Mr. Thanathorn. “But if they want a different kind of future, they should choose a new party.”

This interview was first published in Thai on April 24, 2018. Translated and edited by The Isaan Record.