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Thai Opposition Leader Promises to Fight On After Being Disqualified as MP

Wilawan Watcharasakwet and Nontarat Phaicharoen
Bangkok
2019-11-20
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Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party, greets supporters as he arrives at the Constitutional Court complex in Bangkok to hear its ruling on his status as a lawmaker, Nov. 20, 2019.
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party, greets supporters as he arrives at the Constitutional Court complex in Bangkok to hear its ruling on his status as a lawmaker, Nov. 20, 2019.
[Nontarat Phaicharoen/BenarNews]

Thai opposition leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit vowed to press on with his political struggle after a court stripped him of his parliamentary seat Wednesday, ruling he violated electoral laws when registering for national polls this year.

Thailand’s Constitutional Court found that he illegally had not given up his stocks in a media firm before filing papers for his candidacy as an MP in the March 2019 general election – a charge Thanathorn denied. The court ruled 7-2 to disqualify the 40-year-old politician as a lawmaker.

Afterwards Thanathorn said he would “leave it to the people to judge whether the ruling was fair or not.”

He said he would carry on as leader of the Future Forward Party (FFP). The party is especially popular with young Thais. It ran on a pro-democratic and anti-junta platform, winning the third largest number of seats (80) in parliament’s lower house in Thailand’s first election since the military seized power in a 2014 coup.

“This case is very personal. It is about the status of my membership of parliament so there is nothing concerning the party ... I still am the leader of the party,” said Thanathorn.

The billionaire in the auto parts trade and a prime ministerial hopeful in this year’s polls has been outspoken about the military’s influence in national politics.

“[Because] they don’t want me to enter the parliament, I will spend my time with the people. There are millions who want to see changes in this age. I focus on the main goal – a change in the country,” he said. “There is a lot of work to be done. I have to campaign for the amendment of the constitution.”

The Constitutional Court took up the case against Thanathorn after the Election Commission lodged a complaint, which accused the FFP leader of improperly holding 675,000 shares in the media firm when he registered for the election. Thanathorn rejected the charges, claiming he had sold off his shares in the firm before registering as a parliamentary candidate.

“It is believed that the accused [Thanathorn] is a stock holder in the V-Luck Media Co. Ltd. on the day that the Future Forward Party submitted its list of candidates for the House of Representatives to the accuser [the Election Commission] – a prohibition that disqualifies his status,” Voravidh Kangsasithiam, a Constitutional Court judge, said.

“Therefore his status as a member of the House of Representatives is ended since the accused was constitutionally suspended, and a house seat is vacant on the day the Constitutional Court read the verdict to the accused, on Nov. 20,” the judge added in reading out the verdict.

ASEAN lawmakers: Thailand ‘not ready for an open and free democracy’

On May 23, the court suspended Thanathorn from his parliamentary seat but allowed him to fight the case in the court.

On Wednesday, Wissanu Krea-ngam, the deputy prime minister for legal affairs, said Thanathorn could run as a candidate in the next election.

A group of current and former lawmakers from member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, however, criticized Wednesday’s ruling in Thailand, one of the regional bloc’s founding members.

The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) issued a statement calling for “an end to the judicial harassment of opposition members and human rights defenders in Thailand.”

“Today’s ruling is another indication that despite the holding of elections this year, Thai authorities are not ready for an open and free democracy,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian MP and chairman of APHR.

“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. All signs point to a coordinated attempt to silence a party that has threatened the status quo in its pursuit of constitutional reform.”

There were currently 27 lawsuits targeting members of the Future Forward Party, including its secretary general and its spokeswoman, APHR noted, adding that one of these cases “could trigger the party’s dissolution.”

Future Forward and other parties in the opposition had criticized the March 24 polls as being engineered to favor a pro-junta coalition.

The National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta was officially known, changed the electoral rules by revising the constitution. The changes allowed the military government to appoint all 250 members of the Senate, one of two parliamentary houses that would vote to elect the next prime minister under the new rules.

A majority of Thais approved the new constitution through a 2017 referendum. After the 2019 election, the legislature voted for former junta leader and retired army chief Prayuth Chan-o-cha to serve as prime minister.

Last month, the FFP was the lone party to vote against a government decree to transfer two infantry regiments from the military’s chain of command to the Royal Guard Command under King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

The verdict that went against the young leader of the Thai opposition could benefit his party in the long run, according to a Thai analyst.

“Everyone expects this kind of ruling, which reflects that the military still views the pro-democracy camp as an opponent,” Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University, told BenarNews.

“The ruling instead should bring about more popularity, not the demise, of Thanatorn or the FFP, as well as better foreign acceptance because Thanatorn is seen as a political victim,” he added.

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