ASEAN lawmakers decry court ruling against opposition leader


Press release by ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights

JAKARTA – Regional lawmakers expressed disappointment at today’s ruling from Thailand’s Constitutional Court disqualifying opposition leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit from his Member of Parliament (MP) status, and called for an end to the judicial harassment of opposition members and human rights defenders in Thailand.

Thanathorn, the leader of the Future Forward Party (FFP), was found guilty of violating Section 98(3) of the Constitution by holding shares in a media firm while registering as a candidate in Thailand’s general election in March. On 23 May, the Constitutional Court temporarily suspended him of his MP duties pending an investigation, but his parliamentary status has now been stripped. Thanathorn says he had sold the shares in January 2019.

“Today’s ruling is another indication that despite the holding of elections this year, Thai authorities are not ready for an open and free democracy,” said Charles Santiago, Malaysian MP and ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) Chair. 

“This case must be looked at in a wider context whereby opposition MPs and parties, and specifically the Future Forward Party, have been singled out by Thailand’s so-called independent institutions. All signs point to a coordinated attempt to silence a party that has threatened the status quo in its pursuit of constitutional reform,” Santiago added.

The FFP came third in Thailand’s 24 March general election winning 80 seats in the House of Representatives. As an opposition party, it has been repeatedly questioning the role played by the military within the country’s politics. Since, the authorities have been launching a judicial campaign against FFP and his members.

There are currently a total of 27 cases against FFP members. This includes cases against Pannika Wanich, FFP Spokesperson, and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, Secretary-General of the party. The pending lawsuits include, among others, charges of contempt of court, under the Computer Crimes Act, and of sedition. One of these cases, could trigger the party’s dissolution. 

The case at the Constitutional Court follows a request made by the highly criticized Election Commission for its handling of the March national election. Civil society organizations have also questioned the independence of the Constitutional Court since most of its judges had their tenures extended by order of the former military junta. Many of its recent decisions have also been perceived as bias towards the military and its allies, including the fact that when FFP filed a petition against 41 MPs for a similar breach of holding shares in media companies, none were suspended from their duties as MPs. 

Despite the alleged end of formal junta rule, the enormous number of cases against opposition members shows the continued restrictions on freedom of expression and intolerance for any criticism against the government and military influence, said APHR.

“Under a guise of democracy, Thailand’s repressive regime continues battering opposition members with legal cases. It is clear that the FFP is being targeted because of their surprising good score in the elections and their opposition to the powerful military. By depriving the leader of FFP of his seat, Thailand is depriving voters of their voices. Attacking any opposition party is a direct attack on free speech and democracy,” said Eva Sundari, former Indonesian MP and APHR Board Member.

In August, APHR issued a set of recommendations to the Government of Thailand calling on authorities to restore democracy and respect fundamental freedoms.

APHR is concerned that today’s decision is another illustration of a broader worrying regional trend where authorities try to silence opposition lawmakers through judicial harassment and other forms of reprisals. Today also marks the 1000 days in detention of Senator Leila de Lima.

“The charges against Senator Leila de Lima are politically motivated and the sole result of her work to stop Duterte’s bloody war on drugs. All charges should be dropped and she should be released immediately and allowed to carry out her duties as an elected senator in the national Congress,” said Mu Sochua, former Cambodian Member of Parliament and APHR Board Member.

“Lawmakers are being hounded and jailed just for doing their job as a check and balance on the executive and it’s a danger to everyone. As fellow parliamentarians, we will continue to advocate at all levels to ensure that our colleagues in the region can exercise their work free from fear and reprisals.”