In Thailand, it’s justice for me but not for thee

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
In Thailand, it’s justice for me but not for thee Pita Limjaroenrat, former leader of the Move Forward Party, leaves a news conference at Parliament in Bangkok after Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled that the progressive party must cease advocating amending the law on royal defamation, Jan. 31, 2024.
Sakchai Lalit/AP

UPDATED at 3:38 p.m. ET on 2024-03-15

This week’s recommendation by the Thai Election Commission that the Constitutional Court disband the progressive Move Forward Party – the top vote-getter in last year’s general election – raises new concerns about a two-tiered justice system. 

Such a move would deal another blow for democracy in Thailand. It would disenfranchise more than 14 million people, or 38% of the electorate, who had voted for Move Forward and its young leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, to lead the country’s first civilian-headed government in nine years. But they saw their dream denied. 

The commission’s recommendation followed decisions by Thai authorities in recent weeks that allowed former prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra to escape much of their legal jeopardy. It reflects how the military and pro-royalist elites still wield influence and can continue to thwart the will of the people. 

The Constitutional Court will likely act on the recommendation and move to disband Move Forward.

In late January, the Constitutional Court unanimously ruled that MFP’s proposal to amend Article 112 was a violation of the 2017 Constitution and tantamount to attempting to “overthrow” the constitutional monarchy and the democratic system. The article frames the strict lèse-majesté law that guards against royal defamation in Thailand.  

In addition to dissolving the party, the high court will likely ban its executives from all political activity for 10 years. The Election Commission’s move could be even more sweeping: Some have warned that it might push for a lifetime ban on all 44 of the party’s MPs who endorsed the proposed reforms to the monarchy.

Legal coups

Despite Thailand’s ostensible return to democratic governance with last year’s establishment of a civilian-led government headed by Pheu Thai – the party associated with the Shinawatras – royalist and military elites continue to exert undue influence over the country’s politics.

They have done so through the 250-member appointed Senate, which had a direct role in the 2019 and 2023 selections of the prime minister – normally the sole purview of the lower house. 

But the most important tool to keep the MFP in check is the judiciary.

In this case, the Constitutional Court has tried to have it both ways, arguing that while there is a legal parliamentary procedure for amending Article 112, MFP’s actions – both online and on the campaign trail – had violated the law and exposed their “hidden agenda” to overthrow the constitutional monarchy. 

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (right) joins current Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin during a homecoming dinner in Chiang Mai, Thailand, March 15, 2024. [Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP]

MFP’s proposal was never to abolish Article 112, but to make it a non-security crime with shorter prison sentences. 

In seeking to direct complaints through the Royal Household Bureau, rather than through law-enforcement, party members were ostensibly separating defense of the monarchy from national security. That alone is the military’s most important priority and justification for ongoing interference in politics. 

The Court ruled that MFP’s amendment proposal was the first step toward abolishing the law; something that Pita, the party’s leader, has called unfeasible. 

But conservative parties and ultra-royalists vehemently oppose any attempts to amend the law. Currently there is an amnesty bill being studied for convicted violators of Article 112, but it is also running into opposition.

Ultra-royalist paranoia has surged, especially as royal succession is uncertain.

Last December, a popular Move Forward MP, Rukchanok Srinork, was jailed for six years on two counts of violating Article 112 for a tweet and re-tweet in 2021. In February, two journalists were charged with supporting vandalism for simply reporting on anti-monarchy graffiti being spray painted on the palace walls. 

In all, about 262 people have been charged under Article 112 since 2020, including one activist who was sentenced to an unprecedented 50 years in January 2024.

Déjà vu 

Move Forward’s leaders have been preparing for this; after all, it is exactly what happened to the Future Forward Party in 2019. They will quickly re-register the party, which according to recent polls, remains the most popular in the country. 

The real problem is that the charismatic and widely known leadership under Pita will be banned from politics for 10 years – the second generation of banned well-known and charismatic party leaders. 

MFP should emerge as a smaller party. Reconstituting themselves will require time and resources, all with lesser known candidates. Rival parties will move quickly in the by-elections, as well as move to encourage defections of any MFP parliamentarians who have not been disqualified. 

Many supporters who chose Move Forward for sweeping political reforms may grow discouraged and accept parties that can at least deliver social services. 

The royalist elites and military cannot completely defy the will of the people. 

The two parties led by the 2014 coup leaders were humiliated in the May 2023 polls, winning only 76 parliamentary seats, and even worse on the party-list voting. That is gobsmackingly low for incumbent parties.

The grand bargain that allowed for the return of Shinawatras and the formation of a Pheu Thai-led government, has given the military/royalist-backed parties a presence in the cabinet. Though they are in a minority, they’re still in a position to thwart any policies or reforms that go against the interests of royalist and military elites. 

And with Thaksin Shinawatra’s parole after only serving six months of an eight-year term reduced to one through a royal decree raises more concerns about double standards.

During his time in custody, the ex-PM spent less than 24 hours in a prison cell and the rest of the time as a patient in a VIP suite at a hospital in Bangkok. This week, Thaksin finally returned to his hometown of Chiang Mai, where he was greeted by his adoring supporters.

Though Thaksin still faces a charge of lèse-majesté, which can lead to a 15-year sentence, that is likely to be dropped in April. 

Former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra arrives at the Supreme Court in Bangkok to make her final statements in a trial on a charge of criminal negligence for mishandling government project expenditures while she was in power in 2013, Aug. 1, 2017. [Sakchai Lalit/AP file photo]

Meanwhile, a court acquitted his sister, Yingluck, who had been sentenced in absentia in 2017 for negligence in a government rice subsidy program. She has been in self-imposed exile since fleeing the country following the May 2014 coup. She will likely receive a token sentence for fleeing the country.

In short, a deal between Pheu Thai – once the standard bearer of opposition to military rule – and the elites was clearly done, as both sought to neutralize the upstart Move Forward Party.

Pheu Thai has become a status quo party while Prime Minister Srettha Thavsin remains acceptable to elites as long as he stays in his lane of reviving the economy, and quashes any attempt at political or monarchy reform. By mid-March, he had spent 30% of his time in office overseas. 

Pita has always remained optimistic, stating the Move Forward’s time will come. But the Thai establishment is wearing the watch and seems able and willing to set the clock back, through coups or lawfare, as often as it needs.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.

An earlier version incorrectly stated that two journalists were charged in February under lèse-majesté.


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