BANGKOK - Future Forward Party, Thailand's second-largest opposition party, on Tuesday (Jan 21) survived a dissolution after being found not guilty by the Constitutional Court of seeking to overthrow the constitutional monarchy due to insufficient evidence.
A petition was brought against Future Forward and its leaders, including founder Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, in July 2019 by Mr Natthaporn Toprayoon, a former adviser to the Chief Ombudsman. He alleged, among other things, that the party had links to the Illuminati, a secret society that conspiracy theorists say is angling for world domination and therefore a threat to the monarchy.
"This should not have been a legal case in the first place. I, Mr Thanathorn, and the party confirm that we have no intention to act against the constitutional monarchy," Future Forward secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, told the press an hour after the verdict was delivered, referring to party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
"It is not the people or any political parties that act against the constitutional monarchy. It is instead the coups, the armed military that tore down the Constitution and prolonged military power," he added, amid loud cheers and claps by party members and supporters at the party headquarters.
Mr Thanathorn then said the party will continue to push forward its initiative seeking the revocation of 17 orders issued by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the junta that stayed in power from the May 2014 coup to the first half of last year, and its campaign against conscription.
"This ruling acts as a breathing tube allowing the party to continue its political journey. It could also be used by the party to legitimise itself further, that it is not acting against the monarchy as its opponents claimed, thereby strengthening its position in and outside Parliament," said Dr Wanwichit Boonprong, a political science professor at Rangsit University.
Mr Natthaporn told reporters outside the courtroom ahead of the ruling on Tuesday that he merely aimed to stop behaviours of members of the party deemed disrespectful of the monarchy.
"We Thais get to live in a sovereign country thanks to the monarchy, so we need to protect this institution. Today, I have done my part," the 70-year-old said.
One of his allegations involved how the party did not include the term "constitutional monarchy" in its party regulations but instead opted for the phrase "democratic principles in accordance with the Constitution".
According to Mr Natthaporn, the party's logo of an orange inverted pyramid, which party executives said is meant to signify people's power, is similar to the Eye of the Providence, a Christian symbol often associated with the Illuminati.
Future Forward was the only party to vote against an emergency transfer of two key army units to King Maha Vajiralongkorn's direct control in October, saying that the process was not in line with the laws. No other parties have publicly challenged a legal procedure related to royal affairs to date.
Dr Piyabutr was also a member of Nitirat, a now-inoperative group of law professors at Thammasat University pushing for legal changes, including the amendment of the harsh lese majeste law ,which prohibits insults and criticism towards the king, queen, heir apparent and regent.
Known for its anti-junta and progressive stance, Future Forward - which was formed in 2018 - surprised many by winning 81 seats in the March general election last year to emerge the third best-performing party.
Despite over a dozen cases filed against the party and its key members, the party continues to campaign against the prolonged military power.
Former junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha, who staged a coup in May 2014 and became prime minister three months later, won his second term thanks to the electoral success of the military-backed Palang Pracharath Party and the rubber-stamp Senate, many of whom are senior military officers, that voted him in.
Tuesday's ruling gives Future Forward some reprieve, although the party is still facing a dissolution in another case currently being deliberated by the Constitutional Court in relation to Mr Thanathorn's series of loan of 191 million baht (S$8.4 million) made to the party last year.
According to Dr Wanwichit, there is a "much higher possibility" that Court may rule against the party, as the case carries more weight.
In the meantime, the party is expected to grill the military-backed government in a no-confidence parliamentary motion, expected in the coming weeks.
Despite a possible dissolution, Ms Phitsanu Kongcharoen, 53, registered as a new Future Forward member on Tuesday. She told The Straits Times: "I want to be with them no matter what happens."
Two months ago, Mr Thanathorn was disqualified as a Member of Parliament by the same court over his shareholding worth 6.75 million baht in a media company, deemed in violation of an electoral law.
"The wave of judicial cases that the authorities have unleashed against the Future Forward Party is clearly part of systematic reprisals for their success in last year's election and their unwavering challenge to the military-backed government," said Mr Charles Santiago, a Malaysian MP and chairman of the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights in a statement on Tuesday.
"If Thailand's government wants to restore faith into its so-called 'return to democracy', it should immediately drop all politically motivated charges against the FFP and democracy activists," he added.
In 2007, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's popular Thai Rak Thai Party was dissolved over electoral law violations.
In March last year, Thai Raksa Chart was dissolved after nominating King Maha Vajiralongkorn's elder sister, Princess Ubolratana, as its prime ministerial candidate.
Additional Reporting by Kannikar Petchkaew