Meet the Ivy-educated opposition leader who could end Thai military rule

Meet the Ivy-educated opposition leader who could end Thai military rule

For nearly a decade, Thailand has been led by an authoritarian military establishment — but Pita Limjaroenrat, an Ivy League-educated business executive and leader of a liberal opposition party, is seeking to change that.

The results of Sunday’s election appear to have gone largely in his party’s favor, potentially setting the stage for Pita to become the country’s next prime minister, but rules set in place after a 2014 military coup could complicate that process.

Here’s what you need to know about Pita and his liberal Move Forward party.

Who is Pita Limjaroenrat?

At 42, Pita is nearly 30 years younger than Thailand’s current leader, retired general Prayuth Chan-ocha, who took power after the 2014 coup.

Pita was born in Thailand but raised in New Zealand before he returned to his native country and completed an undergraduate degree in finance and banking at Thammasat University in Bangkok. He went on to earn master’s degrees in public policy and business from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to his legislative biography.

Before becoming a member of Thailand’s parliament in 2018, he worked as the head of ride-share company Grab’s operations in Thailand and earlier as a consultant at Boston Consulting Group. When he was 25, he took over his father’s agricultural company, saving it from bankruptcy, according to Tatler Asia, which named him to its “Gen.T” list of “the region’s most promising young talent” in 2017. He led the company for a decade, according to his LinkedIn page.

What are Pita’s and Move Forward’s goals?

Pita has pledged to move Thailand out of what he calls a “lost decade” of slow economic growth. Part of that plan, he says, includes diversifying Thailand’s tourism-dependent economy and spreading it out beyond the capital, Bangkok. In a televised interview with Bloomberg last month, Pita said three main points of his agenda are to “demilitarize, de-monopolize and decentralize.”

Two of Pita’s campaign promises have won over younger voters but potentially turned off older ones, who are more supportive of the country’s ruling military and monarchy. He has said he would end military conscription — which he told Bloomberg would help the economy — and has pushed for an end to Thailand’s lèse-majesté, which criminalizes speaking poorly of the monarchy. Rights groups and critics say that such laws have been used by the country’s conservative establishment to target and persecute political opponents.

Why is Pita’s potential victory important, but also complicated?

If Pita gains enough support to become Thailand’s next prime minister, it will put an end to the military’s nearly decade-long rule there. And it could renew Thailand’s position as a democratic foothold in a region that is in some places marred by authoritarianism and conflict. Pita — liberal, Western-educated and fluent in English — could be an easier partner for Washington to work with as Beijing seeks to increase its influence in the region.

Speaking at a news conference Monday, Pita said that Thailand had “been through enough” in the past decade, and that his party’s lead in preliminary election results marked a “new day” for the country. He said it was “safe to assume” that Move Forward and other parties had enough power in the 500-member House of Representatives to be able to assemble a coalition to form a new government. “The people of Thailand have already spoken,” he said, adding that he was “ready to be the prime minister for all.”

But his ascendance could be complicated by the military’s lingering influence, including its power in the military-appointed Senate, whose 250 votes will also be included in the count to name a prime minister.

Adding to the uncertainty, opposition parties have expressed concern that the ruling establishment might try to rig the election in its favor. In his news conference, Pita warned that any attempt to interfere would come at “a hefty price” and that “the people of Thailand would not allow that to happen.”

Asked at the news conference about the uncertainty that hung over celebrations in Bangkok on Monday, where a victory parade was planned, Pita said: “I’m not worried, but I’m not careless.”

Rebecca Tan contributed to this report.  » …
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