11 July 2024

While he was in exile, Thaksin Shinawatra welcomed Thai visitors all the time, so it’s not such a big deal that Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit has admitted to meeting him overseas during the hectic attempts to form a government after the May 14 election. It’s Thanathorn’s apparently-harmless statement about the Move Forward-Pheu Thai relationship that can do far-bigger damage.

In a court of law, Move Forward would be able to easily play down the meeting and even tell the judges that it knew nothing about it. Thanathorn is a grown man who can go anywhere he likes without having to tell anyone, it could be said. So, if Thanathorn and Thaksin happened to be in the same location overseas at the same time, the two politicians could naturally meet to catch up with family affairs or other trivial things, the defence would say.

This could dilute the embarrassment of Chaithawat Tulathon and Pannika Wanich strongly denying that such a meeting had taken place. They might not have known, or they understandably were concerned that an admission would have undue ramifications leading to the dissolution of Move Forward. (It was wrong to lie about it, but it was defendable.)

But Thanathorn did not just admitted that he had met Thaksin after the election. The Progressive Movement leader sang Pheu Thai’s praises during the same TV interview. His act was beyond being polite and graceful in front of the camera. (Being nice was Thanathorn saying something like “I respect Pheu Thai a lot because more than 10 million Thais voted for it.” That was not the case.)

Here’s Thanathorn’s exact words: “To me, Pheu Thai is a friend. Thailand’s way out toward big progress is these two parties (Move Forward and Pheu Thai). I would like to convey this to everyone in Move Forward and leaders of Pheu Thai. Thailand’s future is in the hands of you two.”

The statement will go a long way. Move Forward’s drafters of the imminent censure motion will have to bear it in mind while doing their work. Attacks on Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin and any Pheu Thai minister will be tightrope exercises. Government MPs must have copied Thanathorn’s remark and will wield it like a sword during the no-confidence debate.

Even digital wallet will get some breathing space. Everyone knows Pheu Thai is pushing virtually alone for it and the party’s allies are not that keen. A Move Forward assault on Srettha’s borrowing bill will certainly meet with “Even your founder believes Thailand’s future is in our hands.”

Make no mistake, Thanathorn is anything but a cheerleader of the digital wallet. He has his own ideas of how to get and spend Bt500 billion. Yet his “Thailand’s future” overrides everything. It portrays Pheu Thai as smart, honest and capable, which critics of the digital wallet do not see.

The Thaksin farce will also be hard to deal with. It looked like a thorn in the side of the government until Thanathorn. If Move Forward decries the fact that Thaksin has managed to stay out of jail since his return, the party will be mocked. (“Was your party’s founder meaning that we represent Thailand’s future as long as Thaksin is in jail?”)

Move Forward’s awkwardness aside, Thanathorn’s attempted return to the limelight underlines Thailand’s version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Alliance will keep shifting and peace will exist on a fragile three-way equilibrium. If one element, no matter how small, goes missing, political peace will collapse.

Thanathorn might just want to woo back Pheu Thai. The problem is, if Pheu Thai was to return, it would go back to the thing it ran away from in the first place, playing second fiddle to Move Forward in a government. Pheu Thai has no issue with Move Forward being big, as long as the opposition party is not the biggest.

It’s unclear who is holding whom hostage. Pheu Thai’s reluctant allies have Thaksin and punishment yet to be effected. Pheu Thai, on the other hand, can point at Move Forward and ask the allies “Us or them?” Move Forward’s leverage seems not as strong as the other two camps’. To increase its bargaining power, Move Forward will have to do even better than the last election, but that can drive the party and Pheu Thai further apart.

After his interview with TV host Sorrayuth Suthassanachinda, Thanathorn met another famous interviewer, Jomquan Laopetch. This time, he paused and apparently cried, prompting her to say “It’s all right. You may take as long as you want.”

What looked like an emotional moment was attributed to Move Forward missing out despite winning the May 14 election. Thanathorn is not alone in not being able to get over that fact, but Move Forward can be forgiven if it wishes that he of all the people should grieve a bit more privately.

By Tulsathit Taptim