Thai billionaire registers new progressive political party

BANGKOK — Thailand's slow move from military to civilian governance has attracted dozens of new political parties to register in barely two weeks, including one by an internet-famous billionaire who says he embraces democracy and wants to challenge the country's traditional powers.

Anakot Mai, or the Future Forward Party, was registered Thursday under the name it received just this week after "Help Thanathorn name his party" trended among Thai Twitter users. A Facebook live interview with party co-founder Thananthorn Juangroongruangkit had over 100,000 views and prompted warnings he was being watched by the ruling junta.

Thailand's military seized power in 2014, and allowing political parties to register is a step toward long-delayed elections, now promised by next February. The Future Forward Party was the 58th to register since the junta opened the process March 2.

"My idea is to make this party stand for democratic principles," Thanathorn, 39, told reporters at a news conference. "I want to see a political party that dares to oppose organizations, institutions, and values that oppose democracy."

"We will make democracy a part of every decision-making process from the choosing of party members, the determining of party direction and strategy, to the developing of party policies," he said.

Thanathorn, the executive vice president of leading auto parts manufacturer Thai Summit Group, said he would rely on crowd-funded resources to support his party rather than his own wealth.

He said the party believes in transparent governance, equal rights and economic equality, among other progressive principles, and that it will not take sides with popular figures.

For more than a decade, Thailand had been wracked by occasionally violent political fighting between supporters and opponents of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist billionaire seen as a challenger to Thailand's traditional elite. He was ousted in a 2006 coup and his sister's government in 2014, and the delays in returning to civilian rule are seen as an attempt to prevent a comeback by Thaksin's powerful political machine.

"Thailand has suffered from deep conflict for over a decade, which has caused great economic and social losses. Polarized politics is a hurdle for negotiations, while dictatorial politics limits people's rights and freedoms, suppressing problems without fixing them," the Future Forward Party said in a statement Thursday. "We, who see this conflict, agree that it is time to have a new power come in to restore faith in democracy."

Thailand's politics have often been split between supporters of the traditional establishment, including the military and monarchy, and supporters of political parties that represent progressive ideals. Thailand has seen 19 military coup attempts since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.

Thailand's monarchy is protected by strict lese majeste laws and insulting the monarchy is punishable by three to 15 years in prison per incident. The ruling junta has been criticized by right groups as using the law to silence its political opponents.

The Future Forward Party's co-founder, Piyabutr Saenkanokkul, a university law lecturer, said he has been part of previous legal efforts to amend the lese majeste law, also known as Article 112.

"The suggestion to make amendments to Article 112 is based on democratic ideals," Piyabutr told reporters. "The amendments would make it impossible for people to use the royal institution's name as a weapon against political adversaries and those who think differently. The monarchy will prevail with stability, honor, and modernity, in line with democracy, if improvements are made to this law."

Piyabutr said the Future Forward Party is modeled after young political parties that broke away from traditional politics in other nations. He cited the left-wing parties of Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and La France Insoumise in France.

"It is a world trend that new political parties are emerging. In many countries, these parties have formed governments and while many are still opposition parties, they are gradually gaining more votes," Piyabutr said. "I think that, at the very least, the forming of new parties will force big established parties to adjust."

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AP journalist Tassanee Vejpongsa contributed to this report.

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