The BIG Interview: Why I chose the Pheu Thai Party

She’s an Oxford Graduate, a Pheu Thai party-list candidate, and someone shaping the party’s education policy. We caught up with Tidarat Yingcharoen to talk about politics, education and why she chose to run under the Pheu Thai banner.

Thai Enquirer: Where are you from?

Tidarat: I’m originally from Chiang Rai and came to Bangkok to study at Chulalongkorn for my undergraduate degree. There I studied political science, majoring in international relations and then an MPP [Master of Public Policy] at Oxford.

In Chiang Rai, my family actually opened an orphanage, so I think that’s how I’ve been exposed to a lot of social problems.

TE: And do you think politics is the best way to go about fixing these social problems?

Tidarat: Actually, originally, I wanted to be a diplomat. And that’s why I chose international relations and not government. And then I think when I started to explore a little bit, I kind of realised that this was not for me. I think there’s a lot of bureaucracy going on, but now in politics, it’s the same thing.

TE: Yeah, that’s like stepping from the fire into the other fire.

Tidarat: Yeah, but back then it was a big deal for me, that that’s why I didn’t want to go that way.

TE: Because of the bureaucracy?

Tidarat: Yeah. So, I went to the private sector and tried a non-profit a little bit [before going to Oxford].

TE: So, you left knowing that you wanted to enter politics when you came back?

Tidarat: Eventually. Because I didn’t know if elections would happen.

TE: Sure, but why?

Tidarat: I think I kind of realised that a lot of social problems I saw, going back to my family background, I realised that the direct way to actually be involved and push for a lot of change – I actually advocated for education equity – [involves political input].

TE: So the area that you’re really interested in is education?

Tidarat: A lot of kids, they came to [my parent’s] orphanage and they’re kind of stuck, because they don’t want to go to school for different reasons like the environment [there]. And they don’t see examples of people going to good schools [from their position].

TE: Ok, those are legitimate problems. And I think you’re right that they need to be addressed, but why politics? There are other ways to address those problems.

Tidarat: Like what?

TE: Private corporations, CSR [corporate social responsibility] programmes, things like that.

Tidarat: I’ve been there. I’ve seen how the private sector does it, right?

TE: Tell me. What are they doing wrong?

Tidarat: Well, basically, at least from the perspective I’ve been exposed to – all the private sector [companies] do CSR just because they have to. A lot of people are not very passionate about it.

TE: So they do it just because they have to. Is that what you’re saying?

Tidarat: Yeah, but it also has to be very much in line with what the company’s objectives are. So the policies that come from the private sector in each company is very narrow. For example, you’re an oil and gas company, you pollute the environment and therefore have to do CSR. And that will be the only track that you actually allocate your resources, in terms of CSR, to. And you would not, you know, do anything else beyond that.

TE: Ok, but you said people are not very passionate and they’re sort of there because they have to be, but if you were in CSR, couldn’t you change that? If you ran a CSR programme, wouldn’t you be passionate?

Tidarat: I very much doubt if you are, let’s say, the manager of CSR Chevron and you go there…

TE: No, it doesn’t have to be an O and G [oil and gas]. There’s other CSR programmes around Thailand.

Tidarat: It’s just one example, right?

TE: Sure.

Tidarat: One example, right? You walk up to the CEO and you tell them this is your… you have to change how you do things, you have to, you know, allocate the resources to CSR differently.

They’re always going to weigh that with the cost that [they] have to pay, and in terms of what kind of benefits they get back. Because ultimately that’s the goal of the private companies – they’re profit-oriented, right? I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. It’s efficient, but it’s not the way that I see advocating for policies that I care about ultimately.

TE: And you think because they’re profit-oriented, it wasn’t the best way to go about it…and politics…is? You see what I’m getting at? Because politics here is…

Tidarat: It’s one of the more efficient ways.

TE: You think so?

Tidarat: Going back to if I want to advocate for education equity, I definitely don’t see how the private sector, mostly in terms of CSR platform, could do it very efficiently.

TE: Ok.

Tidarat: And then you have the government who’s also doing it, and has more authority in terms of public schools, how you roll out different policies, different programmes. Definitely the government is a champion to execute those policies.

TE: And so you went to Oxford, you did MPP for a year and you came back, and suddenly there are going to be elections?

Tidarat: Yep.

TE: You could have been with any party when you came back. There were people that wanted you in various parties. Were there any parties where you were like ‘there’s no way I’m going to go to this one’?

Tidarat: Initially, no. Initially, no. I was very open-minded. I think I planned to be in politics as a young generation, as like, you know, as a youth representative. So, I also wanted to be very open-minded about it. So, I actually went to talk to all the big parties.

TE: Even Palang Pracharath?

Tidarat: Yep.

TE: So if they had aligned with your educational interests, you would’ve been ok joining them, even though they were military-backed?

Tidarat: It could have been. But there were different other factors. For example, is there a chance that the party would win? Is there a chance that you get to form a government? Is there a chance that you–

TE: So those factored into your decision?

Tidarat: Yes. If there’s a chance that I get into the party, will my voice will be heard? How the party structure is, because if you’re just going to get in there and you have no say, then there’s no point.

TE: So the factors, if I can just re-cap really quickly, so: aligns with your interests, willing to listen to your voice, and a chance of winning the election?

Tidarat: Yep.

TE: Interesting. Ok, so what brought you to Pheu Thai?

Tidarat: So I talked to a few people, I talked to someone very close to Khun Uttama actually. Came back, got introduced to him. We had a long conversation. I talked to Pi Aek Thanathorn. I talked to Khun Korn and then Khunying Sudarat.

TE: And what was it about Khun Sudarat, where you were like ‘yeah, this is the party for me’.

Tidarat: She was very open to listen to what I had to say. She was very open to hear new ideas.

TE: Even more than Future Forward?

Tidarat: I didn’t feel that.

TE: With Future Forward?

Tidarat: Even with Future Forward – at that time.

TE: Then what? Then what was the process like?

Tidarat: I think it started with going to meet her. I initially met her at her house, not at the party. And then, you know, transitioned a little bit more to the party. And then I think you start to see that it’s not just her, that it’s a bunch of board members and a lot of former politicians that also have a lot of say.

TE: But was there anything besides the personal relationship that you had with Sudarat that brought you to the party? Were there things that the party stood for that you were like ‘yeah, this is what I believe as well’?

Tidarat: I think in Thailand, you factor out the new parties, because at that time you don’t know what the new parties are going to offer yet. Even if they come up and say that you know, Future Forward believes in a new future…

TE: Yeah but you can tell their stances, like Palang Pracharath is pro-military and other parties are not.

Tidarat: Yeah [but] I know that there’s not much difference in terms of I would say policies.

TE: Policies?

Tidarat: Yeah, policy-wise I don’t see a very big difference. You look at, I think the easiest example would be, like in the US for example, you have the Democrats, you have Republicans…

TE: Yeah, small/big government, that kind of thing.

Tidarat: Yeah, and there’s like fundamental differences in terms of what they believe in, right? But when it comes to these older parties [here], you look at the track record. There’s not much difference. Basically, you catch a trend, and like, you kind of implement the policies without the very fundamental differences.

TE: Well, I think they all have one fundamental difference, which is how they view the military, right?

Tidarat: I’m talking about the older parties.

TE: But if you look at the last two decades, you can sort of tell which side is leaning where in terms of [the military].

Tidarat: Yeah, you couldn’t tell with the Democrats until the last minute, until the very last minute.

TE: Of course you could. I mean, they were military-backed in 2009 and 2010. And part of their party led the street protests in 2014. You could tell where they were leaning. You don’t think that’s true?

Tidarat: If you look into what’s happening within the party, there are different opinions in terms of where the Democrats are leaning towards.

TE: Sure.

Tidarat: You have Khun Chuan, you have Khun Abhisit, you have Khun Korn, you have, even Khun Jurin. Everyone has very different stances. You don’t know, even at that time, I’m not an insider enough to know where it’s going to go. Because that depends on different factors that happen. You can look at the party as the party, but that’s like a very big corporation. A lot of things change.

That’s been the older parties. And the newer parties, I think Thanathorn is very straightforward about what he stands for. Palang Pracharath has been very straightforward with what they stand for.

So I think at that time, the way that I want to view it, it’s something more practical – you can get things done, if the people are happy, then you know, you just have to be pragmatic about it. But I think later on, of course things change. You start to get more involved in politics, you start to get more involved with the party. You start to see how things turn out, during the campaigning, during the election, post-elections.

TE: What do you mean?

Tidarat: So I think during campaigning, a lot of people were not happy that, well, there were a lot of complaints that elections weren’t fair.

TE: Do you agree with that?

Tidarat: Yes.

TE: Why do you think the elections weren’t fair?

Tidarat: The opportunities that were given to do campaigning or to do a lot of things were limited. A lot of times, we asked to have the final rally here and there, they said no, very last minute, just because the military said so.

TE: So the stage was set against you and you felt that.

Tidarat: Yeah.

TE: Do you think you were naïve when you first came back, as to compared where you are now politically? In terms of how you viewed a more pragmatic approach to politics? Whereas now you realise that the military have sort of stacked the deck a certain way?

Tidarat: I was aware.

TE: You were aware that that was going to happen?

Tidarat: When I chose the party, I was aware.

TE: Ok. But you said you had an open mind with Palang Pracharath, even considering Palang Pracharath at a certain point.

So even though you were aware, you were fine with it, as long as you can implement change – is that what you’re saying?

Tidarat: And if people are happy, right?

TE: And if people are happy. How do we gauge that?

Tidarat: You could have Khun Anand who became the PM, right?

TE: Sure. A national government.

Tidarat: And he was not elected, right? So it’s possible. And now you have an elected government, and a lot of people are complaining. Yeah, you look at [the] elected government now and there are different things that people are not happy about.

TE: Do you have, let’s say, a fundamental opposition to authoritarianism, or do you think that it really depends on the body of work? Are you a more pragmatic person, or would you say you’re a more idealistic person?

Tidarat: That’s difficult to say. There’s principle and…

TE: What are the principles you believe in?

Tidarat: One, there’s a principle, and two, there’s you can say the body of work, the outcomes – what they do. Fundamentally, I believe in democracy if it’s just a principle. Ideally, I would want that democratic government to be perfect, right? To be able to implement change, to be able to please the people, to listen to people. To be able to implement all the good policies. But…

TE: That’s not how the world works.

Tidarat: Yeah. Especially Thailand. You’ve seen that across the board. You sometimes have [a] better government that’s not elected, sometimes [a] worse government that’s elected. So you can’t just say democracy is the only principle I believe in.

TE: Which is what Future Forward does, right? They’re very principle-driven.

Tidarat: You could say that, yeah. I think they’re more hard line in terms of their stances and whatever they believe.

TE: You mentioned Khun Anand who was not in charge of a democratically elected government, but they brought about a lot of liberal changes like the ’97 constitution for example – do you think that if the government, say a military government, was doing a good job, that there’s no problem with that?

Like if the people are happy, if they’re implementing the policies that you agree with, there doesn’t need to be elections? Could you see a world where that’s possible?

Tidarat: You could say that. It is an ideal perfect world. You could say that.

TE: Really?

Tidarat: But that doesn’t happen. If you come from a government that’s not elected and not democratic [it is difficult] to do everything that the people would be happy with. Because they tend to not listen to the people, right?

TE: And there’s no checks and balances.

Tidarat: And there’s no reason for them to listen to the people.

TE: Of course. So let’s back-track a little bit to Pheu Thai. So you joined this party because you felt like your views would be heard and that as a young person they were willing to listen to you and give you the opportunity to make a difference. Am I correct so far?

Tidarat: Yep.

TE: Would you say, now that the elections are over, and you’ve been in the party for a year and a half now, you feel that that’s still the case?

Tidarat: It’s still the case, but of course the situation changes, because we’re not a government. So I think a lot of things you want to do, it can’t be done.

TE: You’re in the opposition.

Tidarat: Yeah. You have to keep checking on the government instead of implementing your own policies. There are things you can do outside of parliament, but it’s still quite limited. So within that limitation, the very nature of the party is still the case.

TE: And do you still think that they’re listening to your point of view and taking what you say into consideration?

Tidarat: Yes.

TE: In terms of party ideology and how the party is run – what do you wish could happen? What are some constructive criticisms?

Tidarat: I think one area that the party could do better [in] is in terms of capturing the votes and support from young people.

TE: As a younger person, what do you think they could do better to get that vote?

Tidarat: There needs to be more younger faces at the management level. I think they’ve been trying to lower the age of the board members and even the new Secretary-General, but I think now we’re talking about people who are much younger. It doesn’t have to be suddenly you have like 20-year-olds running the board.

TE: So more opportunities for young people?

Tidarat: To be the face [of the party]. I think in the party we kind of have the space to work already, but to be the face, that’s what the voters see a lot, in terms of the branding of the party, what the party looks like. But I think [that] after the election, it’s quite difficult to kind of push for a lot of things, given that we’re now the opposition. A lot of people kind of have different priorities too. I know that a lot of candidates who are younger, who decided to run for the party, now that we’re opposition, they’ve kind of toned down a little bit, you know.

TE: Knowing what you know now, did you make the right decision – to join Pheu Thai?

Tidarat: Yes.

TE: There’s obviously accusations against this party, that it’s run by one man. I’m sure you’ve heard it many times. Do you see any of those criticisms as being valid now that you’re inside the party?

Tidarat: The thing is, I joined the party – say a year and a half ago – before the campaigning. So, everything that those accusations were based on happened way before.

TE: Do you think they are true today?

Tidarat: In terms of…?

TE: Let’s start with Thaksin. Do you see his influence within the party currently?

Tidarat: Somewhat.

TE: So you do see it. And is that a positive or a negative thing?

Tidarat: Both.

TE: Tell me why it’s positive and why it’s negative.

Tidarat: And by the way, there are different opinions across the party as well.

TE: Of course.

Tidarat: In a way I think a lot of people still love him. I can see it.

TE: Especially when you’re campaigning you see that, right?

Tidarat: You mean the voters?

TE: Yeah, the voters.

Tidarat: Sure, the voters and also the party members and the politicians. A lot of people still love him and a lot of people prefer that you have one united leader, instead of now it’s a lot of fractions within the party. Just like any party basically.

So it’s a good thing in a way that it’s united. I mean, he’s not here, but sometimes he comes out and says stuff, a lot of people like listening to him.

It’s a bad thing because it’s our baggage. That’s the number one question we get all the time, during campaigning or elections, or after.

TE: That’s the one question you get asked constantly?

Tidarat: Yeah, it’s baggage. Especially [for] someone like me who’s young and who’s never been involved in the party before, who wants to see the party move on from that. Is it the best way that we move on? There’s no 100 per cent best way.

TE: Do you think it’s time that Pheu Thai moved beyond Thaksin?

Tidarat: Oh, I think it was time. It was time, since before campaigning.

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