Military-Backed government deepens crackdown on Thai opposition


  • Thailand
  • Tuesday, 24 Dec 2019

Thailand's Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit meeting his supporters during a recent rally in Bangkok. The Future Forward party, the third-largest in parliament, faces a trial as early as January for funding violations that it denies. - AFP

BANGKOK: The looming dissolution of Thailand’s highest-profile opposition party is set to strengthen the military-backed government’s grip on power as authorities signal their next move against the movement’s popular leader.

The Future Forward party of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the third-largest in parliament, faces a trial as early as January for funding violations that it denies.

Separately, Thanathorn and one other party member were summoned by a local police department in the district where the rally was held to hear charges over an anti-government protest he organized, the metropolitan police chief said on Monday.

History suggests judges will disband the party, leaving the ruling coalition free to boost its thin majority by poaching Future Forward members.

"Some of them might switch sides,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the faculty of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University in northeastern Thailand.

"Parliamentary voting history suggests some of them put their personal interests over that of the party. The government has incentives to win them over through budget allocations to their districts.”

More seats would make it easier for the coalition -- led by ex-army chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha -- to pass key legislation, such as the annual budget bill next month if the dissolution is done by then. Prayuth seized power in a coup in 2014, returned as premier after March’s disputed general election, and for Thanathorn epitomises Thailand’s continuing democratic deficit.

There’s "a high possibility” Future Forward could be disbanded before the budget vote once the case reaches the Constitutional Court, said Prajak Kongkirati, the head of the politics department at Thammasat University in Bangkok.

Thousands of people attended a flash-mob style anti-government protest Thanathorn organized in downtown Bangkok on Dec. 14. The former business tycoon has warned dissolution could ignite more demonstrations, reviving memories of Thailand’s history of destabilizing street protests followed by military intervention.

Thailand’s baht weakened and stocks pared gains after his call for the recent rally. But his ability to mobilize a large-scale movement remains unclear.

"It likely won’t turn into a big protest in the near future,” said Titipol of Ubon Ratchathani University. The junta Prayuth led clamped down on free speech and prohibited big demonstrations, and Titipol said people are still fearful of the consequences of protesting even though direct military rule is over.

Future Forward has 76 seats in parliament, down from 80 after it ejected four lawmakers for defying the party line. Speculation is mounting over whether the expelled members will defect to the ruling alliance, which comprises more than a dozen parties.

Though less than two years old, Future Forward surged in the election on a platform that includes rewriting the military-backed constitution, curbing the army’s influence and breaking up oligopolies.

Thanathorn, a critic of the royalist establishment’s control of the nation, was disqualified from parliament last month in a shareholding case he described as politically motivated.

The ruling alliance’s biggest party, Palang Pracharath, has previously said Thanathorn should respect the justice system and that most people don’t want to see street demonstrations again.

"Looking at previous cases brought against the party, the results have always been negative,” said Prajak from Thammasat University. The speed with which another opposition party, Thai Raksa Chart, was taken apart in March could be an indication of what lies in store for Future Forward, he said.

Thai Raksa Chart was linked to exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and opposed the junta the governed until the election ushered in the pro-military coalition. Its dissolution didn’t spark unrest, but bloody street clashes occurred in the past when another Thaksin-linked party was disbanded.

Both dissolution cases are part of an effort to control Thai politics, Prajak said. "It’s political maneuvering,” he said. "Future Forward is a threat to the establishment.” - Bloomberg
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