Thai royalists are waging war of judicial attrition against Move Forward Party

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
Thai royalists are waging war of judicial attrition against Move Forward Party Supporters of Pita Limjaroenrat, whose Move Forward Party won the most seats in the May general election, protest after conservative and royalist rivals stop the party from forming a government, at Kasetsart University in Bangkok, July 21, 2023.
[Chalinee Thirasupa/Reuters]

Thailand’s post-election interregnum has ended. 

The military and royalist establishment, through their control of the appointed Senate, blocked the liberal Move Forward Party (MFP), which won the most seats in the May polls, from setting up a coalition government. 

But even within the opposition, royalist and military elites remain highly uncomfortable with the party and its erstwhile prime ministerial nominee, Pita Limjaroenrat.

They are waging a war of judicial attrition against the party and Pita to keep them mired in the court system, hoping MFP will eventually be dissolved.

While these elites were cautious in the months following the election for fear of prompting a public backlash having thwarted the people’s will, they are now moving against MFP and its leadership with focus and deliberation.

Indeed, while the military-backed parties have proven poor at governing or garnering popular support, they’ve been adept at blocking MFP from governing and putting legal pressure on its leadership.

The first legal challenge MFP faces is related to Pita’s ownership of stocks in a now-defunct media company, iTV, which he inherited from his father. The Election Act bans politicians from holding shares in media companies, although iTV has been off-air since 2007.

Pita appeared confident ahead of the court’s ruling set for Jan. 24, 2024. 

It remains to be seen whether the courts or the Election Commission will move to ban MFP altogether, as they did with its predecessor, Future Forward, in February 2020, after a court said the party violated election laws in the 2019 polls. 

Former Thai prime ministerial candidate and Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat leaves the Constitutional Court after attending a hearing on a case related to his ownership of media shares, Bangkok, Dec. 20, 2023. [Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP]

The conservative establishment is obviously concerned that banning the country’s most popular party would provoke demonstrations in Bangkok, where MFP won 32 of 33 seats.

But a ban may not be off the table, considering the second legal challenge MFP is facing, which is related to the criminal code’s draconian Article 112 on royal defamation, also called lèse-majesté.

The Constitutional Court is hearing a petition that argues MFP violated Article 112 by merely proposing monarchy reforms during the election campaign. The prosecution said that this was  an attempt at “overthrowing the democratic regime with the king as the head of state.“ 

The court is set to rule in this case on Jan. 31, 2024. 

If the court doesn’t dissolve MFP, what we are likely to see is the continued process of judicial attrition. 

The pro-royal and military establishment has used this tactic with aplomb, dating back to February 2020 when a court banned Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and 15 others from the party from engaging in politics for 10 years.

Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin speaks at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit in San Francisco, Calif., Nov. 15, 2023. [Carlos Barria/Reuters]

The government of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, who’s from the Pheu Thai party, has no interest in challenging the military’s prerogatives,  and monarchy reform is completely off the table.

Pheu Thai, which won the second-highest number of seats in the May election, was once the establishment’s bête noire. However, since it formed a conservative-leaning government with pro-royal and pro-military parties, it is clearly uninterested in reforming the monarchy.

The new government has, meanwhile, continued to use Article 112, which the previous administration relied on to quash dissent during the 2022 demonstrations.  Leading student activists, including hunger strikers, from back then are now silent in the face of additional lèse-majesté charges.

Earlier this month, a court sentenced Move Forward MP Rukchanok “Ice“ Srinork to six years in prison under lèse-majesté for two tweets she posted on X, the platform formerly called Twitter,  before she even joined the party or won her parliamentary seat. 

In September, a court sentenced a leading human rights lawyer, Arnon Nampa, to four years over his calls for monarchy reforms. It was the first of 14 cases against him. 

Authorities have systematically weakened the opposition through legal proceedings. 

Between July 2020 and the end of November, authorities had charged 262 people for violating royal defamation, 135 for violating Article 116 (sedition), and 195 people for violating the Computer Crimes Act, according to the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

But the military and pro-royal backers of Srettha’s government will have to tread carefully when it makes its moves against MFP, as the parties that thwarted the poll leader from forming the government remain reviled.

A survey held this month by the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) showed MFP remained overwhelmingly the preferred party, with 44% of respondents’ votes, the Bangkok Post reported Thursday.

Pheu Thai came in a distant second with 24%, the Democrat Party was supported by 3.6%, and all the other parties, including the two military-backed parties, only garnered a combined 1.85%. 

But even if they have to be careful while moving to emasculate Move Forward, move they will, because left unchecked, Thailand’s most popular party might get the opportunity to do what the voters want it to: govern.

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.


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