“The laws of physics”, Stephen Hawking once wrote, “conspire to prevent time travel on a macroscopic scale.” Time travel, both forward and backwards, were not possibilities to be ruled out, but the physicist made it clear that it was highly unlikely. He had, after all, once hosted a party for time travelers, the invite to which was only sent the day after it happened. No one, Hawking reported, had shown up.
This is unfortunate for many in the government who seek so desperately to find a way to transport Thailand back to the past. So desperate, in fact, that since the progressive Future Forward party was founded in 2018, over two dozen legal cases were filed against it; and so desperate, in fact, that a case even a well-known yellow Bangkok Post writer had argued was no wrongdoing resulted in the party’s dissolution.
Not that it came as a surprise. Any observer of Thai politics saw Future Forward’s dissolution from a mile away. Thailand, as this blog has argued time and time again, remains characterized by rule by law rather than the rule of law. Party dissolutions and 10-year political bans over mere technicalities, draconian as it is, have become the norm rather than the exception. Future Forward was too radical — on the Thai scale — too popular, too loud. It could not have been tolerated. Indeed, a fatal blow to Future Forward was never a question of if; it was always merely a question of when.
The purpose today, then, is not to analyze how and why Future Forward got dissolved. It is to ask what comes next.
In the long term, if the government believed that the dissolution of Future Forward could be a substitute for a time travel machine, it was mistaken. That was never a possibility. Just as the laws of physics conspire to make physical time travel impossible, the laws of ideas makes ideological time travel difficult.
I voted for Future Forward last year. I, and millions of other Thais, voted for the party because we seek the future, not the past. A future where the government is democratic and accountable, where the military cannot act with impunity, where structural reform ensures equality of opportunity and human dignity. One where Thailand has, in short, democratized, demilitarized, and decentralized. Once people believe they can accelerate the march towards this future, once they believe in the idea that change is possible, how do you get rid of that idea?
Men such as General Prayut and General Apirat, who still look at the world through the lens of the Cold War, probably do not agree with such change. If they could, they probably would have gone to Hawking’s time travelers’ party. Yet the past they seek — one where depoliticized people meekly accept the rule of self-labelled good people, where coups regularly undermine the concept of popular sovereignty, where the voices of those beyond the establishment can be safely ignored — is increasingly and inexorably at odds with 21st century Thailand.
Change can be delayed, but in the long term there will only be so much that can be done to stop the desires of an entire emergent generation. It was symbolic that the prime minister, after tweeting that all should respect the court’s decision, was met with so much anger that he deleted his tweets. His attempt to take on Thai Twitter, whose age demographic is skewed decisively to the left, was in short an abject failure. Like it or not, Thailand is in transition, and it is more likely than not that Future Forward will prove to be the foreword to a new future.
The next question is what happens in the short term?
The forecast for what will happen immediately would be anyones’ guess. It is difficult to figure out what happens in parliament, where 70 Future Forward MPs remain, with a censure debate happening next week. Rising star MP Pita Limjaroenrat, widely acclaimed by a bipartisan crowd after stellar performances in parliament last year, has been named as the new leader of the Future Forward bloc in parliament.
But those MPs will soon need to seek a new party label — Thailand’s current constitution does not permit independent status — and the question of who can step into permanent leadership remains. Future Forward has previously said a new party is ready to go, but will the Electoral Commission allow a new party to enter parliament? And will the EC allocate Future Forward’s seats vacated by those given a political ban to the remainder of their party list, or reallocate them to other parties? That could make a large difference to the government’s majority in parliament.
What is clearer, however, is that those inspired by the vision set out by Future Forward all remain. The party may be defunct, but the people aren’t going anywhere. The party’s social media team cleverly updated the party’s profile picture after its dissolution to cross out the word “party” from the party’s logo but keeping the party name. Its official status as a political party is gone, but its ideals and the personnel it inspired remains.
And indeed, Future Forward’s dissolution means that it becomes all the more likely that the people will step up. Where party politics has failed, the extraparliamentary route becomes the only channel through which the voices of Future Forward’s six million voters can be heard. There is now absolutely no question that political space will continue to be closed down, and people will realize this.
One wonders, indeed, whether or not the government will quickly end up regretting cracking down so hard on the party. Future Forward, as loud as its members were, was locked in an impotent parliament. Now, instead of a return to the pre-Future Forward past, the party’s dissolution may have transported Thailand into a special wormhole to a new reality where Future Forward’s supporters are more, not less, willing to take action. As Jasmine Chia argues in the Thai Enquirer, Future Forward’s dissolution may actually strengthen Thailand’s democracy.
In the end, when told to go gently into the night, Thailand’s change-makers will rage against the dying of the light. For where some choose fear, more will choose hope; and where some choose the past, the majority are choosing the future.
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