Thailand’s storied history in many ways reads like a dystopian novel – entrenched social divides, a benevolent, demigod of a ruler, rapid technological development, and an assortment of military coups. Through it all, several notable Thais have risen as guiding lights, shaping the kingdom’s political, economical, and social landscapes, and together writing Thailand’s next chapter in its saga.
Recipient of The Financial Times’ “Global Finance Minister of the Year” in 2010, Mr. Chatikavanij led the charge to reform Thailand’s economy at a particularly tough time for the country, amidst violently splintering political tension, the rise of the military junta, and anti-government protests. His leadership also helped Thailand turn a corner towards a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly society, supporting policy changes to help the economy rely less on manufacturing.
Today he is president of the Thai FinTech Club and launched the Refinn International Dot Com, which both support the development of financial tech start-ups by budding Thai entrepreneurs.
Thaksin Shinawatra is easily one of the most divisive names in Thailand today. Serving as Prime Minister from 2001 – 2006, his government spearheaded programs to reduce poverty, expand infrastructure, implement universal healthcare coverage, and promote small business, making him incredibly popular in rural Thailand. He also managed to achieve drug reform in the kingdom, though the controversial campaign launched three months of violence in the South. These methods were highly criticized as death tolls were high, and many of the victims had no involvement in any drug operations whatsoever.
As the first democratically elected prime minister to serve a full term, he was re-elected before being ousted by the 2006 coup leader, Sonthi Boonyaratglin. Now in self-imposed exile in Dubai, he has since been charged with crimes like corruption and fraud by the ruling junta, and supporters and opponents fiercely debate the validity of these charges. Regardless, he continues to influence Thai politics, calling for democratic reform and party unity.
At just 21 years old, Chotiphatphaisal has grown to become the face of Thailand’s emerging anti-junta movement. His leadership has driven thousands of Thais, many of them very young like him, to stand up to the rule of the current military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO,) which seized power from the democratically-elected government in May 2014.
The anti-junta movement protests the military’s restrictions on human rights and civil liberties, including Internet use and its lèse-majesté law – the strictest of its kind on earth – which subjects harsh criminal penalties on anyone accused of insulting the monarchy or government. Chotiphatphaisal’s passion, however, is in education reform. He has founded two organizations, Thailand Education Revolution Alliance (TERA) and Education for Liberation of Siam (ELS,) which provide platforms for student activism.
Formerly serving as the first country head of Google Thailand, Banomyong transitioned to the managing director of the incredibly popular mobile app LINE in 2016. Under his leadership, LINE revolutionized the way Thais communicate, complementing the nation’s rapid technological and telecommunications advancements in the last decade. Thailand is the most active mobile country in Southeast Asia, boasting a smartphone penetration of 90% of its internet users. A whopping 92% of these users communicate exclusively through LINE, connecting corners of the kingdom like never before.
Aliza ‘Alice’ Napartivaumnuay
Aliza is the co-founder of the award-winning social enterprise, Socialgiver. The platform is a lifestyle charity concept that sells GiveCards, vouchers redeemable at some of Thailand’s most prominent brands, and raises funds for social projects by creating shared value between consumers and businesses. It takes advantage of spare capacity of businesses, like unsold hotel rooms or event tickets, for which customers can receive vouchers for making different levels of contributions to social projects of their choice, enjoying quality products and services for a fraction of their retail value. To date, the service has impacted more than 45,000 people in need through projects focused on education, healthcare, and bridging inequality.
An electrical engineer by trade, this managing director of Impact Solar Limited, a next-generation renewable power start-up, was the first Thai to receive the Asian Development Bank’s New Energy Leader award in 2017. He works to reduce the Thai government’s monopoly on the power sector to advance the development and implementation of clean energy. He is gaining increasing support from renowned regional corporations like Big C Supercenter, Thai Union Group, and Kerry Logistics on the mission to have renewable energy make up at least 25% of the country’s total power mix by 2021. He’s driven expansion of his firm’s technology to develop renewable projects in Japan and Laos, but remains committed to his original mission of bringing better power options to the poor, rural areas of Thailand to help them better manage their lives.
Viravaidya is a former politician and activist, affectionately known throughout the kingdom as “Mr. Condom” because of his ardent promotion of family planning, AIDS awareness, sexual health and education. In fact, condoms in Thailand are often slangily referred to as “mechais.” During his time in activism, the average number of children born to Thai families has dropped from 7 to 1.5.
Following a career in politics, he founded the nonprofit the Population and Community Development Association, aimed at improving the lives of the rural poor, and instituted programs for condom distribution throughout the country. His latest project was the launch of the regionally famous Cabbages and Condoms restaurant, complete with an attached family planning clinic in its Bangkok location. The concept chain is contraceptive-themed in hopes to promote better acceptance of sexual education, making condoms as ubiquitous and available as cabbages.
Moo Natavudh Pungcharoenpong
A Thai tech entrepreneur named “Businessman of the Year” in 2016, Moo is the CEO of Ookbee, a company that provides a digital public platform for mobile devices, and FavStay, Thailand’s local answer to Airbnb. His most recent success, however, is as co-manager of 500 TuTuks, the most active venture-capital fund investing in start-ups in Thailand, engaging rising entrepreneurs to create major change and positive impact on the economy. Many of the start-ups he supports are graduates of his Disrupt University, which was set up in 2012 and acts as a channel to bring the best tools, frameworks, and methodologies from Silicon Valley to educate Thai innovators to launch their creative products and start-ups.
Activist and magazine editor Prueksakasemuk is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence on the conviction of publishing two articles critical of a fictional character interpreted by the court as representing King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The criticism violates Thailand’s controversial lèse-majesté law, which criminally prohibits any defamation of the Thai monarchy or government. Critics believe that the activist was long on the government’s radar for his active role in trying to reform the strict censorship laws, and the articles about the king were more of a smokescreen for arrest. Increased enforcement of lèse-majesté has been linked to political chaos that has become a mainstay in Thailand since the coups of 2006 and 2016. High-profile international groups including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders have designated him a “prisoner of conscience” and “human rights defender,” vehemently calling for his release.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej
No list of influencers would be complete without the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The beloved king, who died in 2016, was the longest ruling monarch in modern history at 70 years, surpassing the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II. He is nearly universally revered throughout the kingdom, and even considered by many to be a demigod. Under his rule, he traveled widely throughout the country and actively pursued rural development projects aimed at alleviating poverty throughout his kingdom, and promoted a philosophy of a “sufficiency economy” focused on balanced development based on social responsibility and economic progress. His stabilizing presence enabled the mediation in events of crisis throughout his leadership, and during his reign Thailand enjoyed its longest periods of democracy. His legacy is not without controversy, but in large part he represented a consistent symbol of unity and promise for the Thai people.