Thai court dissolves opposition party critical of military rule
By Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's Constitutional Court on Friday dissolved an opposition political party that has been critical of the military establishment and banned its leader from politics for 10 years over a loan he gave the party.
The action against the Future Forward Party took place less than a year after Thailand held an election to end direct military rule and it strengthens the position in parliament of a coalition led by Prime Minister Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former junta leader who first took power in a 2014 coup.
Future Forward, led by billionaire heir Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, 41, has been critical of military dominance of politics. It came third in the election, winning support from many young people and 81 of the 500 seats contested in parliament.
The court ruled that the party broke the law by taking a 191 million baht ($6 million) loan from Thanathorn.
"The party is ordered to be dissolved according to the 2017 political party law," Constitutional Court Judge Panya Utchachon said in his ruling.
The court also banned Thanathorn and 15 other party executives from politics for 10 years.
The party and Thanathorn have denied any wrongdoing
"They want to destroy us but this is the time to prove that they cannot destroy us. We have to be stronger," Thanathorn told supporters at party headquarters after the ruling.
"Future Forward is more than a party. You can dissolve the party but you cannot dissolve its people," he said.
Most of the party's members of parliament will retain their seats and can form a new party but the ban on its leaders will reduce the opposition's votes and its ability to block Prayuth's agenda.
Soon after the ruling, Prayuth urged the public to respect the court's decision.
"I believe those that voted for Future Forward Party can find other mechanisms to check on the work of the government," said part of the post, which was later deleted from Facebook.
'NO ONE FOOLED'
The court ruling drew criticism from outside Thailand.
The European Union (EU) call the court's decision a set-back for the country's political pluralism.
"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.
A group of parliamentarians from members the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) issued a statement saying the military is still pulling the strings in both politics and the judiciary.
"Last year’s election was supposed to bring an end to military rule in Thailand, but after today no one is fooled into believing this is the case," said Francisca Castro, a Philippine lawmaker and member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.
Prayuth's pro-army party came first in the March 2019 election but opposition parties say electoral laws written by the junta were designed to give the military establishment control over politics.
The court on Friday said the loan to the party amounted to a donation because it did not follow commercial practices in lending. The election law limits donations from an individual to 10 million baht ($318,167).
Thanathorn said the financial arrangements were above board.
He also faces two criminal charges, one for computer crimes for a speech he posted criticizing the junta in 2018, and another for sedition for allegedly aiding anti-junta protesters in 2015. In total, nearly 30 cases have been brought against Future Forward leaders.
(Additional report by Chayut Setboonsarng and Juarawee Kittisilpa; Editing by Robert Birsel)