The U.S.-trained military seized power in bloodless coups in 2006 and 2014, embroiling this Buddhist-majority nation in street clashes and insurrections -- before settling in to try and maneuver and manipulate in the background.

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Pita Limjaroenrat is deliberately entering a political minefield, littered with politicians and governments which failed.

Wealthy Mr. Pita's youth-led victory in nationwide elections on May 14 to try and become Thailand's youngest prime minister, is a vivid rejection by a large swath of Thai society against the U.S.-trained military's unpopular political domination and coups.

Mr. Pita, 42, is now struggling to have his Move Forward Party (MFP) form a coalition government uniting smaller parties, while litigious knives sharpen around him.

Projecting robust defiance, Mr. Pita said May 15 it would be "quite far-fetched" for anyone to oppose his victory.

"With the consensus that came out of the election, it will be quite a hefty price to pay for someone who is thinking of abolishing the election results, or forming a minority government," Mr. Pita said at a celebratory reception.

Ballots from Sunday's election for the 500-member House of Representatives gave him and his MFP the most votes of all candidates and parties.

In July, the 250-seat Senate -- appointed by a now-defunct junta -- joins the newly elected House to confirm the next prime minister.

"The sentiment of the era has changed. And it was the right timing," he said.

"I would like to announce here that the Move Forward Party is ready to led the forming of the future government."

Previous opposition politicians tried to do what Mr. Pita plans, and they ended up "dissolved and banned" by the Constitution Court for financial conflicts, or allowed to become prime minister but later toppled in a military coup.

Not a smooth career path, especially for a "progressive" politician.

Educated at Harvard and MIT, Mr. Pita's U.S. experience may make it easier for Washington to engage with Bangkok, which appears to enjoy good relations with the Pentagon. 

"Thais will prove that ballot is stronger than the bullets, back like how President Abraham Lincoln said 200 years ago, will happen in Thailand this year," he said, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Mr. Pita's political base of enthusiastic, energetic, imaginative young people expanded when they convinced older relatives to vote MFP.

His apparent openness to modernizing society is likely to maintain Thailand's embrace of China's swelling commercial activity in this Southeast Asian nation.

"For U.S. and China rivalry, Pita said foreign policies are more like a la carte choices, rather than a buffet, emphasizing that it is not necessary to always take sides," reported Thai Enquirer on May 15.

"He seems like he can do things, he's new, and he has a list of all the things," said one intrigued medical worker.

"So give him a chance," she said.

One popular Thai journalist was so enraptured by Mr. Pita's victory, he captioned a tweeted photograph of himself and friends grinning in a Bangkok restaurant:

"Celebrate Thai election earthquake?"

A thankful Mr. Pita and thousands of his cheering supporters thronged Bangkok's streets on May 15, circling Democracy Monument, a site often used for pro-democracy and anti-coup protests.

Mr. Pita presents himself as the opposite of the grim, demanding, military leaders who seized power in coups in 2006 and 2014, which embroiled this Buddhist-majority nation in street clashes, insurrections, and other disruptions.

His father was an Agriculture Ministry adviser, and his uncle an assistant to Thailand's former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in the 2006 coup.

After a childhood partially in New Zealand, Mr. Pita graduated Harvard University with a master's in public policy, and from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with an MBA.

He put those ideas into practice at his late-father's rice bran oil company and other businesses, before divorcing his actress-model wife and plunging into politics.

Among Thailand's gossipy "hi-so" -- high society --  money-flaunting elite, Mr. Pita gained a spotlight as an "eligible bachelor" raising his pre-teen daughter.

Mr. Pita then joined a new, liberal, anti-military Future Forward Party (FFP).

The FFP was doomed.

In 2018 its billionaire leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was convicted by the Constitutional Court for financial conflict of interest.

It banned him from political leadership and disbanded the FFP.

Mr. Pita's first seat in Parliament represented that party, so when the FFP vanished, he established the MFP in 2020 with much wider appeal.

Refreshingly, what some saw as Mr. Thanathorn's public arrogance and political swagger, was replaced by Mr. Pita's more refined, welcoming, and stable style.

Some however suspect he was intentionally put as a front, to give the MFP an acceptable "centrist" image while much more radical members lurk in the background.

If he becomes prime minister, Mr. Pita wants to distribute political and financial power and assistance to communities throughout the country, instead of prioritizing and centralizing power here in the pampered capital Bangkok.

He plans to challenge Thailand's large, family-run monopolistic corporations to allow for greater diversification for smaller marketers.

More difficult, he also wants to end the military's coup-empowered occupation of the 250-seat Senate, which was created to "screen" and control politicians elected to Parliament's House of Representatives.

Mr. Pita wants the Senate to be elected.

And end military conscription.

Mr. Pita also boldly insists on opening Thailand's discreetly cloaked, influential constitutional monarchy to public scrutiny and "reform".

Thousands of young people challenged police in Bangkok's streets in 2020 with marches, satirical agitprop street theater, brawls, arson, and other acts, demanding the monarchy be reformed.

Mr. Pita knows those street demands resulted in arrests, imprisonment, injuries, and intimidation, including 15-year prison sentences for anyone convicted of lese majeste.

Some of his closest colleagues in the MFP were active in those protests.

He now wants to upgrade the debate from Bangkok's tattered and chaotic streets to the grandiose halls of Parliament.

The subject of the monarchy is something most Parliamentarians will likely not want to discuss in any way, to avoid legal problems or because they are satisfied with the status quo.

"We will use the Parliament to make sure that it is a comprehensive discussion with maturity, with transparency, in how we should move forward in the relationship between the monarchy and the masses," Mr. Pita said May 15, according to the BBC.

He told the Bangkok Post: "No matter what, we will push for royal lese majeste law reform."

That kind of talk tempts some Thais to favor a coup.

Thailand has been rocked by more than a dozen putsches since the 1930s, which Mr. Pita wants to end.

He and his MFP are currently angling to take control of key ministries, reportedly including the Ministry of Defense.

A coup to stop Mr. Pita is unlikely in the immediate future, because his opponents have easier ways to try first.

Mr. Pita is already trying to shrug off allegations that he is involved in a financial conflict of interest because he has links to a media company.

Mr. Pita says he is innocent, but faces a possible trial at the Constitutional Court.

A political opponent has petitioned the Election Commission and the National Anti-Corruption Commission to look at Mr. Pita's finances and recommend his case to the court.

A key question focuses on Mr. Pita's father -- who died owning shares in a media company -- and if Mr. Pita inherited those shares.

Anyone holding shares in a media company cannot be an election candidate.

"I am not worried about the case, because the shares are not mine," Mr. Pita recently tweeted.

"It's a family heritage, and I'm the manager of that. I informed the National Anti-Corruption Commission about this a long time ago."


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks" are available at