Thai court bars rising opposition leader from parliament
By Saowanee Ekpunyachai
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's Constitutional Court on Wednesday disqualified outspoken opposition party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit as a member of parliament after finding him guilty of violating election law.
Thanathorn, 40, has emerged as the most prominent opponent of a government headed by former junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, 65, after the progressive Future Forward Party came a surprise third in an election in March.
The Constitutional Court found Thanathorn guilty of holding shares in a media company on the date his candidacy was registered for the election to formally end five years of military rule.
In its ruling, the court said the evidence against Thanathorn outweighed that in his favour. The opposition leader had argued that he had disposed of the shares in time.
After the ruling, Thanathorn said the court had ruled based on assumptions rather than facts.
"I'm still the leader of the Future Forward party and the party is the journey. The journey never ends," Thanathorn said. "The people will move forward together and I'll continue to work on amending the constitution."
Thanathorn has been a fierce critic of the army's involvement in politics and did particularly well among young voters in the election. The main pro-military party was declared winner after a disputed ballot count.
His pledge to push for changes to a constitution drafted under military supervision and to end conscription has put him at odds with a strongly royalist and pro-military establishment, which has cast him and his party as enemies of tradition in the country of about 70 million.
After the court ruling, #RIPThailand and #StandWithThanathorn were among the hashtags trending on Twitter in Thailand along with his name and the party's name in Thai.
Thanathorn’s party won 80 out of 500 available seats in the lower house of parliament in the election.
Future Forward is part of an opposition alliance that had disputed the vote count and accused the army of writing the electoral rules to ensure that Prayuth, the former military leader, would remain prime minister.
The political alliance includes a party loyal to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose populists dominated elections in Thailand for nearly two decades even though he was overthrown in a 2006 coup and fled to exile.
Prayuth overthrew Thaksin's sister in a 2014 coup.
Thanathorn also faces two criminal charges, one for computer crimes for a speech he posted on Facebook criticising the junta last year, and another for sedition for allegedly aiding anti-junta protesters in 2015.
In total, nearly 30 cases have been brought against Future Forward leaders.
"Today’s ruling is another indication that despite the holding of elections this year, Thai authorities are not ready for an open and free democracy," said Charles Santiago, chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Parliamentarians for Human Rights group.
"All signs point to a coordinated attempt to silence a party that has threatened the status quo in its pursuit of constitutional reform."
(Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Robert Birsel)