Updated at 11:50 p.m. ET on 2020-02-21
Thailand’s Constitutional Court ordered the opposition Future Forward Party dissolved Friday and banned its leader from politics for a decade over a campaign loan, in a ruling that human rights groups and Southeast Asian parliamentarians condemned as a blow to Thai democracy.
The court voted 7-2 to disband the anti-military FFP and ruled that leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and 15 other officials from the party, which finished third in last year’s general election, could not form or assume an executive positions in a political party for 10 years.
“Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit loaned a large sum of money to the party. The party executives should have known that with the debt, the party could be controlled by the debtor,” Judge Panya Udchachon read from the verdict in a televised event. “Therefore this case has solid evidence that the accused violated the Political Party Act.”
“[The court] orders the Future Forward Party be dissolved in accordance with Article 92 of the Political Party Act and will withhold political rights of the executives active during the time the action took place. It will disallows them to register a new party, assume party executive positions or take part in forming a new party for 10 years,” the judge said.
The party’s dissolution and the ban on its top leaders participating in politics for the next decade sidelines the FFP only 11 months after Thailand staged its first election since the military toppled a civilian-led government and installed a junta in May 2014. The army general who led that coup, Prayuth Chan-o-cha, oversaw the military government and again became prime minister after the March 2019 polls.
On Friday, FFP leaders, joined by more than 100 supporters, monitored the verdict from the party office in downtown Bangkok.
“The Future Forward Party comes to an end. I, as the party leader, apologize to the people that we failed you on our promise,” Thanathorn told reporters. “We promised to thwart the junta’s power retention, amend the Constitution and reform the armed forces, but we failed and I apologize.”
“I declare a Future Forward Panel to bind people who want to carry on with the ideology of amending the constitution,” Thanathorn said.
On Saturday morning (local time), the United States Embassy in Bangkok came out a with a brief statement on the Constitutional Court's dissolution of the FFP.
"The United States strongly supports democratic governance around the world, and appreciates Thailand’s recent seating of a democratically elected government," said the statement posted on the embassy's website.
"While the United States does not favor or support any particular political party in Thailand, more than six million voters chose the Future Forward Party in the March 24 elections. The decision to disband the party risks disenfranchising those voters and raises questions about their representation within Thailand’s electoral system," the embassy went on to say.
In Brussels, the European Union criticized the party's dissolution as "a set-back for political pluralism in Thailand."
"Dissolving political parties or banning Members of Parliament runs counter to the process of restoring pluralism initiated last year. Political space in Thailand should remain open," the EU said in a statement Friday, adding Thai authorities should ensure that all legitimately elected MPs should be able to keep fulfilling their parliamentary mandates.
New York-based Human Rights Watch was among groups that ripped into the court's decision to break up Thanathorn's party, which is popular with young Thais.
“The Constitutional Court’s ruling to dissolve the Future Forward Party is a knockout blow for Thailand’s teetering efforts to restore democratic rule after a military dictatorship,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “This decision seriously weakens the political opposition for the benefit of the military-backed ruling party and unjustly cancels the votes of over six million Future Forward Party supporters.”
Last May, Thanathorn, 41, told reporters he had disclosed in his official declaration of assets that he provided a loan of 191.2 million baht (U.S. $6.3 million) to finance the FFP’s electoral campaigns during the March 2019 general election.
Responding to a petition from anti-graft activist Srisuwan Janya, the Electoral Commission previously ruled that Thanathorn was not anticipating a repayment.
It dismissed Thanathorn’s claims that the amount distributed in two sums, 161.2 million baht ($5.3 million) in January 2019, and a second of 30 million baht ($994,000) in April 2019 was given as a loan. The EC then sought a ruling from the Constitutional Court.
Thanathorn still faces sedition and other criminal charges stemming from his political efforts. The party’s secretary general, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, faces criminal charges as well.
They and others formed FFP to challenge Prayuth’s government. FFP holds 76 seats in parliament after finishing third in the March 2019 election, capturing 81.
Prayuth appointed himself prime minister after leading the coup that overthrew the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra. He was voted in as PM following last year’s election after a rule change allowed 250 senators appointed by the junta to vote for the top office.
‘No justice in this country’
Skulsri Boonchote-anand, 47, was among FFP supporters at party headquarters, and applied for party membership despite the court’s ruling.
“I’m very sad. I didn’t think the court would disband the party,” she told BenarNews. “I like this party because they reach out to people and they do care about the people.
“They are political hope, the light at the end of tunnel, but today it was put out.”
A giant banner at Bangkok’s Thammasat University read: “There is no justice in this country.”
Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University said he had expected the court’s ruling.
“Nothing to be surprised about because everyone anticipated such a dissolution. It is the same happening in Thai politics like when Pheu Thai party was undercut,” he told BenarNews.
“The dissolution may help the opposition gain more support from younger generations,” he said.
The Pheu Thai party, loyal to Thaksin Shinawatra, who like his younger sister, Yingluck, was outed from the prime minister’s office by a military coup, was the second-most popular party in the 2019 general election, picking up 136 seats in parliament.
Sunai Phasuk a Human Rights Watch senior researcher in Thailand, said the court’s action was a setback for pluralism in Thailand ahead of a censure debate. Parliament is expected to begin the three-day debate against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and five cabinet members on Monday and vote on Thursday.
“Only three days ahead of a no-confidence debate, the Constitutional Court’s ruling in a politically motivated case to disband the FFP is seen as a knockout blow for electoral pluralism in Thailand. The ruling coalition will now benefit from the verdict that unjustly cancels the votes of millions who support the FFP,” Sunai told BenarNews.
“The dissolution verdict violates the rights of the FFP members to freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly and democratic participation guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” he said.
Members of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) expressed disappointment with the court’s action as well.
“The penalty seems wholly disproportionate to the infraction, and when you look at the huge number of cases brought against the Future Forward Party and its members since it was founded, it is hard not to question whether they are being singled out because they pose a threat to the political establishment’s grip on power,” said Abel Da Silva, a Timor-Leste MP who also serves as member of APHR.