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MPs urge Thai authorities to end attacks on pro-democracy groups

Regional lawmakers expressed extreme disappointment at today’s decision by Thailand’s Constitutional Court to dissolve the Future Forward Party (FWP), calling on authorities in the country to end their harassment of pro-democracy and opposition groups.

A Future Forward supporter at the party headquarters on Friday, holding a sign saying "when injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty." 

On Friday, the court announced the dissolution of the FWP, having found the party guilty of breaking clauses in the 2017 Organic Law on Political Parties, for accepting a loan from founder Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit that exceeds the lending limit of 10 million baht over a 12-month period. 

The court also ruled that executive members of the party can play no role in politics, or establish a political party, for 10 years. 

“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 Member of Parliament (MP), and member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR). 

In the 2019 general election, FWP emerged as the country’s third most popular party, winning more than six million votes, and 80 seats in parliament. However, since then its members have been constantly targeted by authorities, with more than 30 cases opened against them under a range of laws, many that do not comply with international human rights law and standards.

In December 2019, Thanathorn was stripped of his MP status after the Constitutional Court found him guilty of holding shares in a media company when applying to run in the election, while last month the party narrowly avoided dissolution when the Court found party leaders not guilty of attempting to undermine the constitutional monarchy. Critics have accused the government and state institutions of political bias in targeting FWP whilst ignoring or overlooking similar cases and accusations against parties aligned to the military. 

“The dissolution of the party  sends a message to six million people that their vote doesn’t matter,” said Francisca Castro, a Philippines MP and APHR member. “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.”

On top of the dissolution, party members still face further charges, some that could result in jail time. Thanathorn and another party member, Pirattachot Chantarakachon, are accused of breaking the Public Assembly Act for organising a rally in central Bangkok in December to oppose the government’s attempts to dissolve the party. Authorities are accusing the pair of holding a public assembly, and using loudspeakers, without permission. 

A number of political parties have been banned in controversial decisions by the Constitutional Court since Thai Rak Thai was banned in 2007 following a coup d’état. Parties more closely aligned with the military and political establishment have avoided the same fate, drawing accusations of political bias.

“The Future Forward Party is the latest in a long line of opposition political parties in Thailand to be banned. It is increasingly apparent that any party which seeks to threaten the military and the establishment’s political hegemony will not be tolerated,” said Castro, from APHR. 

If Thailand’s government wants to restore faith in its so-called “return to democracy” it should immediately drop all politically-motivated charges against the FWP and its members, as well as human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists, said APHR. It should also take immediate steps to review and amend repressive laws to ensure they are in line with international human rights standards and norms. In August last year, APHR issued a set of recommendations to the government for democracy, justice and rule of law to be restored in Thailand, and for the 2017 Constitution to be amended. 

The case against the FWP follows a broader trend in Southeast Asia, of governments shutting down opposition parties by creating trumped-up criminal charges against their members, and using these so-called “crimes” to strip them of their MP status, a practice known as “lawfare”. 

The pattern can be witnessed in Cambodia, where the only viable opposition party the Cambodia National Rescue Party has been dissolved, and its members and activists are facing spurious charges, as well as the Philippines, where opposition MPs, particularly those who have been critical of President Duterte’s war on drugs, are either in jail or are facing a raft of questionable criminal charges.