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Voters in Thailand, led by young people, are expected to demand change

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Voters in Thailand will go to the polls on Sunday for an election that will see the military and its proxy parties trying to extend their nine-year-long rule. The opposition aims to end it. NPR's Michael Sullivan has this report from Bangkok.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The leading candidates for prime minister include two former coup leaders, a health minister who just decriminalized dope and the heir to a political dynasty whose father and aunt were both deposed by the military and are now in exile. Then there's the Harvard-educated businessman whose progressive party hopes to reclaim what he calls the lost decade under military-backed rule.

PITA LIMJAROENRAT: My name is Pita Limjaroenrat. I'm the prime ministerial candidate for Thailand from Move Forward Party.

SULLIVAN: Move Forward's predecessor, Future Forward, burst onto the scene ahead of the 2019 election, a brand-new party that took aim at the military and the monarchy and finished a surprising third. That alarmed the royalist establishment, whose courts quickly dissolved the party and banned its leaders from politics. The rebranded party's message is simple.

LIMJAROENRAT: Demilitarize, demonopolize and decentralize - that's how you democratize Thailand. That's the endgame. Take military out of politics so that we don't have military coup every seven years on average.

SULLIVAN: Sounds simple, but it's not, says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: In Thailand's constitutional framework, the military and the monarchy have been above and beyond reproach, above and beyond the Constitution, and Move Forward is trying to constitutionalize them, making military and monarchy accountable, transparent. Reforms are overdue, and Move Forward is calling out for it. And that's why it's gaining a lot of traction and momentum.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: It's a message that resonates with young people, in particular, the majority at this Move Forward rally in Bangkok. Twenty-nine-year-old office worker Waruntorn Jariyakornkul.

WARUNTORN JARIYAKORNKUL: Because it's only party that dares to say the truth. And they do it, like, the straight way, say straight and act straight.

SULLIVAN: Saying it straight, acting straight is part of what got Move Forward's predecessor dissolved in 2020, and that did not go over well.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: Many furious, suddenly disenfranchised young Thais protested in large numbers, calling for the military-backed government to step down and for curbs on the power of the monarchy. But eventually the protests were snuffed out, in large part by employing harsh lese-majeste laws that prohibit any criticism of the monarchy and can result in prison terms of up to 15 years. Hundreds have been charged since, including 21-year-old Tantawan Tuatulanon.

TANTAWAN TUATULANON: There's no future now, and I'm not sure there's going to be future for the young generation. If the political system remains the same, I think we're going to die.

SULLIVAN: Tantawan and a friend's alleged crime was taking a poll at a mall asking people if they were inconvenienced by royal motorcades. They were released on bail after going on a hunger strike. Young people like her are helping fuel Move Forward's surge in the polls. It's not likely to win but could do well enough to join a coalition government if it's not dissolved again. Party leader Pita says he's ready.

LIMJAROENRAT: I have my succession plan. I have my pipeline of talent. The worst-case scenario, if we were going to be kneecapped again - that next 10 people who will take over the party management to make sure that our journey keeps going forward. So if it doesn't work this time, it will work next time.

SULLIVAN: Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Bangkok.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.