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Thailand's Future Forward party survives dissolution threat

Opposition group not guilty of opposing monarchy, but 2nd court challenge looms

Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit arrives at a press conference in Bangkok on Jan. 21. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

BANGKOK -- Thailand's second-largest opposition force, the Future Forward Party, on Tuesday avoided disbandment in a Constitutional Court ruling that nevertheless does not guarantee the party's survival.

The court ruled that young millionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit's party is not guilty of undermining the kingdom's constitutional monarchy as claimed by a petition filed by Natthaporn Toprayoon, a former adviser to the chairman of the Ombudsman's Office.

The court said it found no concrete evidence that the party wanted to overthrow the constitutional monarchy.

The petition insists that the party's executives have aggressively sought to amend the constitution, which says, "Thailand has continuously and always maintained the intention to adhere to a democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State."

The party's main policy priorities include slashing the military budget, bringing civilian control to the military and reviewing the king's role in the constitutional monarchy. The current constitution was approved by a national referendum in 2017.

Natthaporn's petition also likens Future Forward to the Illuminati, which according to conspiracy theories was a secret society that sought to overthrow monarchies.

"Today, Future Forward received a verdict that allows us to move forward," Thanathorn said. "Inside the parliament, we will continue trying to make our election promises come true. Whether in the opposition or in the ruling coalition, we can work together if it is for the best benefit of the people.

"Outside the parliament, we will continue to meet people to have a discussion and to design how we want Thailand to be in the future."

Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, Future Foward's co-founder and deputy leader, said the case should not have been taken up to begin with. "We have no intention to overthrow the democratic regime, with the king as the head of state," he said. "We've insisted that there is no place for coups in pursuit of firm" and stable governments.

"I am relieved that the party was not disbanded," a teary-eyed party supporter said. The woman had come from Samut Prakan Province, just south of Bangkok, to watch the proceedings at Future Forward's headquarters.

Local media reported that more than 10 representatives from different embassies were present at the court to hear the ruling. An officer from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was also present.

Founded in March 2018, Future Forward made a striking debut, winning 80 of 500 lower house seats in the general election held last March. Among opposition forces, only the Pheu Thai Party, founded by supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, won more.

But its seats have since been whittled down to 76. Thanathorn, the 41-year-old leader, lost his lower house seat in November when the court said he did not sell off his media holdings soon enough. Thai election law bars candidates from owning media assets. In December, the party expelled some members for continuously voting against the party line.

Tuesday's ruling does not completely free the party from the specter of dissolution. Another petition filed by the Election Commission of Thailand could lead to a disbandment order. Accepted by the court in December, the petition claims the party has received money from an illegal source. Thanathorn lent his party more than 191.2 million baht ($6.3 million).

"Studying the constitution and related laws, the loan case seems to have a higher possibility to result in Future Forward's disbandment," said Chaiyan Chaiyaporn, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University.

Charles Santiago, a Malaysian lawmaker and Chair of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, released a comment on Tuesday saying Future Forward "still faces myriad other politically motivated charges."

"If Thailand's government wants to restore faith in its so-called 'return to democracy,'" he said, "it should immediately drop all politically motivated charges against the FWP and democracy activists."

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