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Thai court dissolves opposition party, bars 16 key members from politics

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The Future Forward Party (FWP) fronted by the charismatic auto-parts scion Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, emerged from nowhere in March last year to become Thailand’s third biggest party. AFP

Thai court dissolves opposition party, bars 16 key members from politics

A stridently anti-military Thai party was dissolved on Friday and its key members banned from politics for a decade over a 191 million baht ($6 million) loan by its billionaire founder, a withering blow to the kingdom’s pro-democracy movement.

The ruling could edge the kingdom – whose economy is shrinking – closer to the street protests that have scored much of the last 15 years of Thai history.

The Future Forward Party (FWP), fronted by the charismatic auto-parts scion Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, emerged from nowhere in March last year to become Thailand’s third-biggest party in the first elections since the 2014 coup.

The party’s radical agenda – calling for full democracy, an end to conscription and the removal of the army from politics and business – won it 6.3 million votes and pitched it against the powerful, conservative military.

But since their strong poll showing, Thanathorn and his 76 lawmakers have faced relentless rounds of legal cases in Thailand’s courts.

On Friday the nine-member constitutional court dissolved the FWP, ruling that a 191 million baht loan by Thanathorn violated Sections 66 and 72 of the Organic Law on Political Parties.

The loan exceeded the 10 million baht limit on donations to parties by an individual, one judge said.

Sixteen party executives, including founder Thanathorn, were also “banned for running for political office for 10 years”, judge Nakarin Mektriarat added.

Future Forward has denied wrongdoing.

A defiant Thanathorn, who has 29 court cases lodged against him and his party, told supporters: “Don’t give up, don’t stop the dream.

“In the darkest day for Thai society, I can say that I did not sit still waiting for it to explode,” he said of establishing the now-disbanded party.

The same court has taken out several pro-democracy parties since 2008 and knocked two anti-establishment prime ministers from power.

Late on Friday around 500 Future Forward supporters – many young – gathered at its downtown Bangkok headquarters to cheer defiant speeches and political rap songs.

“Today is not the last page of the book,” Thanathorn, who has vowed to build a progressive movement outside of parliament, told the crowd.

“Today is the last page of chapter one. Tomorrow we will start the second chapter.”

The ruling puts a pin in the immediate political aspirations of Thanathorn, whose emergence on the Thai political stage has inspired millennials but frightened the country’s conservative establishment.

“I don’t understand why they do this. Do they want people to come out on to the street?” a desolate FWP supporter at the party headquarters said, requesting anonymity.

‘Commit to protecting rights’

On the same day, Amnesty International called for reversing the verdict in a strongly-worded statement.

Its regional director Nicholas Bequelin said: “Today’s decision by the Constitutional Court to dissolve the FWP illustrates how the authorities use judicial processes to intimidate, harass and target political opposition.

“Thai authorities must reverse the dissolution decision and restore genuine rights to freedom of expression and association in the country.

“The dissolution of the Future Forward Party is the culmination of the Thai authorities’ relentless onslaught against the party’s leaders and members since the lead-up to the March 2019 general elections.

“Both before and since the elections, the authorities have used sweeping and vaguely worded legal restrictions to dissolve the party and had disqualified the party leader from sitting in parliament.

“The Thai government, members of parliament, and all political parties in Thailand must commit to protecting the rights to freedom of expression and association.

“The international community, which has, on the whole, remained silent about human rights violations in Thailand, must demonstrate it will not accept the outlawing of political opposition,” said Bequelin.

Before and following the general elections on March 24, last year, the Thai Raksa Chart Party, allied with the opposition Pheu Thai Party, was disbanded. The party’s leaders were also barred from contesting elections for 10 years.

Amnesty International said it was a non-partisan organisation that neither supported nor opposed any candidate in any election.

Meanwhile, Key Pheu Thai Party leaders offered full support to the FWP after the charter court’s verdict. Its chief strategist Sudarat Keyuraphan tweeted words of encouragement.

“The dissolution of FWP today destroyed its body, not the unbreakable spirit in everyone’s heart. I support all FWP members, and will continue my fight against the power which has eroded our democratic form of government with the King as Head of State,” Sudarat said.

Phumtham Wechayachai, an adviser to the opposition leader, posted on his Facebook page that he was very sorry about the FWP situation and expressed his support for the party’s executives and members in this crisis

“May everyone be encouraged, and continue your journey to support democracy and help the people,” he said.

Thailand has seen several rounds of bloody competing street protests roughly between those who support democracy and those who buttress the royalist army establishment, which draws on the backing and wealth of the kingdom’s oligarchs.

Thailand’s economy is on the ropes – freshly winded by the sharp tail-off in tourism as fears over the coronavirus slow travel – while patience with the army-affiliated government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is running out.

Prayut led the 2014 coup against the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra.

But the gaffe-prone former army chief has been openly ridiculed since restrictions on free political expression were eased last year.

FWP members of Parliament remain lawmakers but have 60 days to find another party.

The party could also re-launch, but without its charismatic key executives is likely to struggle to keep the same number in their ranks.

Critics say Thailand’s army-scripted constitution has created a lop-sided parliament stacked with former generals.

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