Webinar on “Thailand’s Generation Z: From Future Forward to Free Youth?”

In this webinar, Prof Duncan McCargo shares his insights from working on his latest book (Future Forward – The Rise and Fall of a Thai Political Party, co-authored with Anyarat Chattharakul) in which he examine the rapid success and demise of the short-lived Future Forward Party in Thailand and what drove the phenomenon. 


Tuesday, 17 October 2020 – Professor Duncan McCargo, Director of the Nordic Insitute of Asian Studies in Copenhagen, spoke about the political engagement of Thai youth in politics in the last several years, about the nature of that engagement, and about some of its implications.

Professor McCargo framed his comments by referring to his recent book, co-authored with Dr Anyarat Chattharakul, Future Forward: The Rise and Fall of a Thai Political Party (NIAS Press 2020). While the Thai courts ordered the dissolution of the Future Forward Party in February 2020, the party came in third among parties contesting the March 2019 general elections. At the core of its appeal was its “hyperleader” floating above the party and voters, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. He and party secretary general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul attracted immense public interest and attention, to the point that support for them and for the ideas that their party advanced were blurred.

Prof Duncan McCargo
Prof Duncan McCargo shares his insights from working on his latest book, Future Forward – The Rise and Fall of a Thai Political Party. Dr Michael Montesano moderated the session. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

This blurring was related to the nature of Generation Z, to ideas of followerdom in the social media age, and to the phenomenon of fandom. The overlap between followers of the Future Forward Party and K-Pop fans in Thailand reflected that latter phenomenon. The party proved able to excite a certain segment of Thai voters, especially social media uses. Central to that success was the use of the language of young people and of catchy phrases, many initiated not by the party but by online influencers. While the party also mounted a rather conventional political campaign, its public events were not in fact as large as those of other parties.

The Future Forward Party was in the run-up to the 2019 elections capturing or tapping into an extant Zeitgeist in Thailand. Features of that Zeitgeist also characterize ongoing protests in Thailand now. These features include a resolve to overturn hierarchy, resistance to established patterns of deference, a willingness to challenge elders, and an opposition to seniority—to authority grounded in age or attributed status. The success of Future Forward thus reflected a Thai society in transition. It was tied to the coming-of-age of “digital natives”, to their habits in accessing information, and to their frustrations with the prevailing order. It his regard, it had implications beyond Thailand.

The Future Forward Party was an agent in opening ways for young people with well developed understandings of Thai history, politics, and institutions to express themselves. Ongoing protests in Thailand follow these ways. The protests also reflect strikingly similar views shared among members of a segment of Thai youth, largely regardless of background. In this sense, the protests and the participants in them have bypassed the now dissolved Future Forward Party and its erstwhile leaders. The party’s relationship with its young supporters, Professor McCargo’s webinar suggested, was in the end both ambiguous and ambivalent.

Questions from participants in the webinar concerned Thai authorities’ treatment of social media, the role of Thanathorn in the Future Forward Party’s success in winning support, the relationship of K-Pop fans to the Future Forward Party and of the Red Shirt movement to both the party and the current protests, whether youthful protestors would be able to draw support from other segments of Thai society, the degree to which opposition to seniority targeted individuals or rather systemic features of the Thai order, the sustainability of a protest movement with no leaders, and likely future scenarios for Thailand.

Almost 80 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)