Thai court acquits opposition party of sedition charge

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Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit

Thailand’s Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, left, poses for media with party members at the headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Thailand’s Constitutional Court acquitted the country’s third-biggest political party of seeking the overthrow of the country’s constitutional monarchy. The court ruled Tuesday that the Future Forward Party showed no intention of committing the offense, and that the complaint had not been filed according to the correct legal procedure. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

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BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand’s Constitutional Court on Tuesday acquitted the country’s third-largest political party of seeking to overthrow the constitutional monarchy in another legal case highlighting political divisions in the Southeast Asian nation.

The court ruled that the Future Forward Party showed no intention of committing sedition and that the complaint had not been filed correctly.

The party still could be dissolved under another pending charge of breaking election laws by taking a large loan from its leader. No court date has been set in that case.

The party was founded in 2018 during military rule, and advocates reformist positions that are anathema to the royalist ruling elite. Its surprisingly strong finish in an election last year and its popularity among young people rattled the government, which is led by the same people who staged a military coup in 2014.

The party criticized the military at a news conference at which it gave its reaction to the court ruling.

Its secretary-general, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, said he and party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkrit have no intention of overthrowing the constitutional monarchy.

“On the contrary, coups d’etat are the real cause of corrosion of democracy under the constitution,” he said. “Tearing up the whole constitution and establishing oneself as the sovereign definitely destroys the constitutional monarchy. A group of military officers who hold guns are the ones who destroy the constitutional monarchy.”

Piyabutr, one of the party’s 76 lawmakers, said he would submit a proposal in the next session of Parliament asking it to study how to prevent coups.

The case drew special attention because the legal complaint sought to link the party to a mythical conspiracy known as the Illuminati, which is purportedly an elite organization seeking world domination.

The complaint, filed last year by lawyer Natthaporn Toprayoon, listed statements by party officials supposedly critical of Thai traditions, and pointed out that its logo is a triangle which vaguely resembles the alleged symbol of the Illuminati. It claimed the Illuminati had sought to overthrow European monarchies and influence the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

“This is the first time I’ve ever heard about the Illuminati being invoked in a genuine political dispute,” said David Bramwell, a British writer who has researched the conspiracy theory. “It’s a rather preposterous idea, to be honest. … It smacks of political oppression and paranoia.”

The sedition case is one of a series filed against the party and its leader, Thanathorn. In November, the Constitutional Court stripped Thanathorn of his lawmaker status, ruling he violated a regulation on media ownership.

There is a widespread belief that one way or another, the party will end up being disbanded, with its leaders banned from political office for several years.

The party has taken positions critical of the military for its interference in politics. It also seeks to amend the constitution, drafted after the 2014 coup, to make it more democratic.

The military and the courts are two main pillars of the Thai establishment and have consistently acted to curb threats to the status quo.

In its ruling Tuesday, the Constitutional Court ordered Future Forward to clarify its regulations to comply with the constitutional provision that political parties must not oppose the constitutional monarchy.

The party’s popularity was displayed last month when several thousand supporters rallied in Bangkok in one of the largest political demonstrations since the 2014 coup.

“I think it shows that people will not tolerate dictatorship anymore,” Thanathorn said at the time of the protest.

Thanathorn is a 41-year-old billionaire whose family fortune was made in the auto parts industry.

His opponents have tried to smear him by accusing his party of backing former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire populist whose policies and popularity upset royalists, and who was ousted by a 2006 coup. His ouster set off a long and sometimes violent power struggle between his supporters and opponents.

The court’s ruling provides some political cover for the party, said Prajak Kongkirati, a political science professor at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.

“From now on, it is harder for political rivals to harm the party by using the same accusation of overthrowing the constitutional monarchy,” he said.

He cautioned, however, that the pending case involving a 191 million baht ($6.3 million) loan that Thanathorn made to his party will be harder to deal with. The case was forwarded to the court by the state Election Commission after it concluded the loan violated election laws.

Prajak said the loan is not clearly covered by law, but that in similar circumstances in the past, other politicians have been found guilty based on unfavorable interpretations by the courts.

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