BANGKOK (Reuters) - Hundreds of students and supporters held a protest in Bangkok on Saturday against a court decision dissolving Thailand's second largest opposition party, less than a year after an election that ended direct military rule.
The Constitutional Court on Friday disbanded the upstart Future Forward Party, which won more than 6 million votes last year and came in third, for taking loans from its founder.
The court also banned 16 party executives from politics for 10 years, including its charismatic billionaire leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. The party and Thanathorn have denied any wrongdoing.
The ban strengthens the position in parliament of a coalition led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former junta leader who first took power in a 2014 coup.
The Student Union of Thailand called a rally at Thammasat University to protest against the dissolution of Future Forward, which draws its support particularly among young voters.
"We are holding the rally against the injustice in the country," student union president Jutatip Sirikhan, 21, told Reuters.
Protesters held up the three-finger salute, inspired by the Hunger Game movies, a symbol of resistance adopted after the coup, and later lit candles in a show of defiance.
The health ministry warned against public gatherings amid concerns over the coronavirus in Thailand, which has recorded 35 cases.
"A political gathering is not appropriate at this time and could increase risk of an outbreak," health official Tanarak Pipat said. Some of the protesters wore medical masks.
Future Forward's leaders vowed to continue advocacy and political work across the country, including pushing for military reform and better welfare policies in line with their manifesto.
Pannika Wanich, a spokeswoman for Future Forward, said supporters would hold a "no confidence motion" event in Bangkok on Sunday ahead of a censure debate in parliament on Monday.
"There has been injustice against the six million voices and the country," said Pisit Iewlatanawadee, 29, at the protest.
"A group that does not derive authority from the people has destroyed our hopes," he said.
The party's dissolution was "a knockout blow for Thailand's teetering efforts to restore democratic rule after a military dictatorship," Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams 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," he said.
(Reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng, additional reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and Artorn Pookasook; Editing by Kim Coghill and Ros Russell)