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Duncan McCargo comments in the Wall Street Journal on the political situation in Thailand

Thai Court Rules Pro-Democracy Party Leader Violated Electoral Law

Potentially more troubling for the Future Forward Party are the trials to come. One lawsuit alleges party links to the Illuminati.

Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit leaves Constitutional Court in Bangkok, Nov. 20. PHOTO: GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/ASSOCIATED PRESS

By Feliz Solomon

Nov. 20, 2019 6:41 am ET

A Thai court dealt a setback to a pro-democracy opposition leader, effectively stripping him of his status as a lawmaker in the first ruling to come out of a string of legal cases against him and his political party.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the 40-year-old leader of the Future Forward Party, was found guilty Wednesday by Thailand’s Constitutional Court of owning shares in a media company in violation of electoral law, rendering him ineligible to serve as an elected member of parliament.

In an interview, Mr. Thanathorn said he was innocent and that he would continue to lead his party.

Mr. Thanathorn, the heir to an auto-parts manufacturing fortune, emerged last year as an outspoken challenger to the country’s ruling pro-military establishment. He is openly critical of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army leader who led a coup in 2014 and oversaw nearly five years of military rule.

Mr. Prayuth was chosen as prime minister by the parliament in June after a widely criticized general election. He relied on votes from the army’s handpicked 250-member Senate, whose appointed members vote alongside lawmakers from the elected lower house.

Future Forward secured a substantial presence in the lower house, winning 81 of 500 seats and more than 6 million votes, surpassing expectations.

Future Forward poses a challenge to the status quo because of its appeal among young voters, particularly those under 25 years old, who tend to be less conservative than Thailand’s older generations, said Duncan McCargo, director of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen. “Thanathorn has single-handedly mobilized young people, who are in turn terrifying their own parents with their critical views and questions,” Mr. McCargo said.

But Future Forward faces a cascade of legal battles that could lead to its dissolution and see key leaders imprisoned on charges including sedition and libel. A spokeswoman for the party, Pannika Wanich, said its members face a total of 27 lawsuits, several of which she called “politically motivated.”

Lawsuits against the party have been filed by conservative civil-society groups, individuals and military personnel. Ten of the cases, including the one concluded on Wednesday, were filed on behalf of an organization called the Association to Protect Thai Constitution, according to Future Forward. The group’s secretary and the plaintiff in the cases, Srisuwan Janya, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

A spokesman for the ruling People’s State Power Party declined to comment.

Wednesday’s verdict related to Mr. Thanathorn’s ownership of shares in a company called V-Luck Media. Mr. Thanathorn said he divested his stake in the company, which published magazines for a domestic airline and bank, before registering his candidacy. He also said the company ceased operations before the election date was announced.

The Constitutional Court suspended Mr. Thanathorn from parliament in May, when it accepted the case against him. The verdict is binding and can’t be appealed.

Potentially more troubling for the party are the trials to come. Those involve charges including insulting the monarchy, computer crimes and corruption—each carrying possible prison terms. One lawsuit alleges senior members have links to the Illuminati, an Enlightenment-era secret society, and that the party seeks to end Thailand’s constitutional monarchy.

Michael Montesano, coordinator of the Thailand studies program at Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, called the cases “a naked assault” on the party and its leader. “It is difficult to view them as anything but a determined effort to drive Mr. Thanathorn from politics and to shut his party down,” Mr. Montesano said.

Mr. Thanathorn said he is preparing for a protracted battle with his political opponents and bracing for the possibility that he may be imprisoned. The party’s aim, he said, is to see Thailand return to fully democratic governance under an amended constitution, overturning some of the powers that the current army-drafted charter reserves for the armed forces.

“It’s going to be a long fight,” Mr. Thanathorn said. “I am convinced that the people cannot tolerate this anymore, they want to see change.”