BANGKOK -- Three ministers in Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's cabinet have been forced out of office after the Central Criminal Court in Bangkok found them guilty of involvement in street protests that culminated in the 2014 coup which installed then army chief Prayuth as prime minister.
Digital Economy and Society Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta was sentenced on Wednesday to seven years; Education Minister Natapol Teepsuwan received a term of seven years and four months; and Deputy Transport Minister Thaworn Senniam got five years.
Under the constitution, ministers are barred from office if they are found guilty of a criminal offense. The three ministers must vacate their cabinet positions immediately, but they will retain for now their seats in parliament.
The three ministers were among 26 members of the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) convicted on Wednesday. The group was led by a prominent Democrat party member and royalist, former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban. Suthep has been given five years, but all the sentences are subject to appeal.
Among the charges, the defendants were found guilty of sedition, trespassing, and instigating strikes. The group, often referred to as Yellow Shirts, took over streets and important buildings in Bangkok and its environs in rallies staged in late 2013 and early 2014. Their aim was to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra after her government unsuccessfully called a general election and moved into caretaker mode.
Yingluck was herself ordered out of office by the Constitutional Court not long before Prayuth's coup in May 2014, ostensibly executed to restore political order.
Of the three ministers forced out of office, Buddhipongse played the most important role in Prayuth's cabinet, and was a strong enforcer of internet censorship. When unprecedented debates on reforming the monarchy were sparked by youthful protesters last year, Buddhipongse's ministry coordinated the filing of complaints against individuals and platforms, forcing some posts to be taken down.
Buddhipongse also backed the resumed use in November of the kingdom's draconian lese-majeste law to file charges against those who made defamatory statements against King Maha Vajiralongkorn and other members of the royal family.
Education Minister Natapol came under particularly heavy fire during last year's rallies from students critical of the kingdom's authoritarian education system, which among other things dictates uniforms and haircuts for university and secondary school students.
Natapol's wife, Taya, was said to be planning a run at the Bangkok governorship, although the election has yet to be scheduled. Palang Pracharat, the main ruling party, was expected to back either the incumbent governor, Aswin Kwanmuang, or Chakthip Chiaijinda, a former police chief, for the position.
Some local political observers suspect political wrangling in the ruling coalition may have played a role in this legal turn of events, while others see it as a sign of growing judicial independence.
The court's ruling has sparked talk of possible reshuffle. Prayuth will need to fill the vacancies at least, but he has not said if he plans to go beyond that. "It's always at the back of my mind," he told reporters on Tuesday.