Popular Thai Opposition Leader Ousted but Escapes Prison

While the Thai Constitutional Court’s ouster of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party as a member of parliament, is a sign of continued judicial harassment of Thailand’s opposition, it doesn’t necessarily mean he or his popular party are finished, sources in Bangkok say.

Unlike previous leaders who were defenestrated by the court, including onetime Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (2001-2006) and Thaksin’s sister Yingluck (2011-2014), Thanathorn was spared a prison sentence and can continue – although precariously – to rebuild his political position, said a former top figure in the Pheu Thai party who asked not to be named because of the nature of the political situation in Thailand today. Thanathorn’s seat falls to the FFP’s Manop Keereepuwadol.

For one thing, the 40-year-old Thanathorn, although a member of the opposition, is insulated in a way the Thaksins weren’t by solid establishment credentials. He was previously vice president of his mother’s Summit Group, Thailand’s biggest auto assembler and, was connected to Matichon, one of the country’s biggest newspapers. His uncle, Suriya Juangroongruangkit, was Minister of Transport in the mid-2000s and is a leader of Palang Pracharat, a prominent pro-junta party.

“Despite the court decision, he is a promising opposition figure against the dictatorship although a good part of it is his personal aggrandizement,” the source told Asia Sentinel. “His FFP is still intact whereas Thaksin’s parties have all been dissolved. He still has the luxury to mount an effective drive against [Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha] and his henchmen.”

Thanakorn himself said that “As a leader of this political party, there is loads of work to do." That is made more difficult by the fact that Thaksin and Yingluck, who since 2006 have conducted a running war from exile against the junta, and who are the motive forces for the Pheu Thai Party from their safe perch overseas, have pledged fealty to Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn, who has backed the army-led government. Unless there is some unexpected development, it is difficult to see a way forward for them politically.

In the five years following the 2014 coup that ended electoral government, the “National Council for Peace and Order” – the forces aligned with the army – arrested student activists and Pheu Thai leaders, driving many into exile and in some cases pursuing them overseas. Hundreds of thousands of websites critical of the government were shut down, television channels were closed, freedom of speech and the press was suppressed, those who opposed the regime were herded to military facilities for “attitude adjustment” and security agents visited the homes of outspoken critics dissidents to discourage them from engaging in political activity.

The state apparatus and the constitutionally safeguarded institutions such as the Counter Corruption Commission and the Election Commission which had served the junta well are subservient to the new government. The mechanism established to carry out junta directives is intact and at the disposal of the new government despite Prayuth’s professions that the government is a democracy.

As a new party appealing to urban Thai moderates, the Future Forward Party shocked the government, which had spent years rigging the constitutional rules for the March 2019 election, winning 81 seats to combine with the Thaksin surrogate Pheu Thai Party with 136, positioning the opposition to lead the government until the junta, led by Prayuth, who had fomented the coup that brought down the Thaksin forces in 2014, massaged the rules to take back leadership, cobbling together a seven-party coalition and prevailing on a handful of so-called “cobras” to switch from the opposition to the government.

The Future Forward Party’s concentration on military strong-arming, however, made them a government target. The Constitutional Court has long done the bidding of the junta and moved to strip Thanathorn of his status as an MP. He was suspended over allegations that he had held 675,000 shares in V-Luck Media Company as a candidate, which was forbidden by the Constitution.

Although Thanathorn said the shares were sold in January 2019, the court in its ruling, said the evidence outweighed that in his favor. After the ruling, Thanathorn said the court had ruled based on assumptions rather than facts.

“This case must be looked at in a wider context whereby opposition MPs and parties, and specifically the Future Forward Party, have been singled out by Thailand’s so-called independent institutions,” said Charles Santiago, Chair of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, in a prepared release. “All signs point to a coordinated attempt to silence a party that has threatened the status quo in its pursuit of constitutional reform,” The ruling, he said, is another indication that Thai authorities are not ready for an open and free democracy.

At present, the courts have 27 cases against FFP members on charges ranging from contempt of court to the Computer Crimes Act. Seen as a challenge to the establishment and the military’s continued grip on power, Thanathorn has already faced charges of sedition and in 2018 for computer crimes for criticizing the military’s National Council for Peace and Order, which were dropped last month. Pongsakorn Rodchompoo, the FFP deputy leader, was also being prosecuted for allegedly sharing fake news about General Prawit Wongsuwan buying US$377 coffee cups but was quickly deleted.

Far from the Constitutional Court level, in Thailand’s restive south judicial independence has been in the international news of late due to the suicide attempt of Judge Khanakorn Pianchana who shot himself in the chest in his courtroom in Yala province in October. “The fact nowadays is [judges] are far less independent than they were decades ago, all thanks to the junta-sponsored 2017 constitution,” an editorial in the Bangkok Post said recently regarding the incident. Judge Khanakorn has since recovered and was transferred to Chiang Mai yesterday.

Yala’s “suicide judge” became a lightning rod for the Future Forward Party, which has been trying to advance a number of progressive causes, most recently submitting a bill to end the controversial military draft.

The FFP’s surprise third place finish – behind the junta’s Palang Pracharat, which finished second to Pheu Thai – didn’t allay the assault from the courts for Thanathorn or the other members of the party. In late October, 120 members left the progressive FFP quit the party

“No one knows what the court may decide, but whatever the result is, everyone must respect it. Otherwise, an endless cycle of unrest will follow,” Democrat Party spokesman Ramet Rattanachaweng said, according to Khaosod.

Criticizing the Constitutional Court is a dangerous business. The military’s National Legislative Assembly gave the courts carte blanche to take legal action against anyone who comments in "dishonest manner" or with words that are "rude, sarcastic or malicious". This is punishable by a month in prison and a Bt50,000 baht (US$1,650) fine.

“Under the guise of democracy, Thailand’s repressive regime continues battering opposition members with legal cases. It is clear that the FFP is being targeted because of their surprising good score in the elections and their opposition to the powerful military. By depriving the leader of FFP of his seat, Thailand is depriving voters of their voices. Attacking any opposition party is a direct attack on free speech and democracy,” said Eva Sundari in a release from AHRP.

The Constitutional Court’s judges mostly had their tenures extended by the junta. The FFP filed complaints against 41 Members of Parliament for similar media shares charges; all maintain their seats.