BANGKOK • The telegenic leader of an anti-junta political party who rose to prominence in Thailand's election last month was charged with sedition yesterday, drawing hundreds of his supporters onto the streets urging him to "fight".
Billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit heads the youth-oriented Future Forward Party which won more than six million votes in the March 24 poll, the first since a 2014 coup, with its message of ousting the military from politics.
It had joined an anti-junta coalition with six others claiming the right to form a government in the aftermath of the disputed vote whose full results are expected by May 9.
Earlier this week, he posted on Facebook that police had summoned him to appear before them to face a sedition charge relating to anti-junta rallies in 2015.
The tycoon said the charge was "politically motivated".
Hundreds turned up yesterday morning in front of Pathumwan police station in central Bangkok wearing T-shirts bearing Thanathorn's face and shouting "Save Thanathorn!" while waving placards that read "Military, get out!"
While inside, he and his party members tweeted out photos of what was happening, showing Thanathorn affixing his fingerprints to the charge sheets and representatives from foreign embassies and the United Nations observing the police procedure.
More than two hours later, he emerged from the station and told reporters he had been charged with "inciting unrest... helping the suspect escape... and the illegal assembly of more than 10 people" for his actions in 2015.
"We believe we are innocent. I did everything in good faith," he said, denying the charges.
The accusation reportedly dates back to an incident in 2015, when anti-junta student activists resisted detention by the authority who had banned gatherings of more than five people. Thanathorn, who was running his family's auto parts empire at the time, is accused of providing a vehicle for the students to flee, The Nation reported.
The case will be tried in a military court and the maximum sentence is seven years, said his lawyer Krisadang.
"We oppose this because civilians should not stand trial in military court," Mr Krisadang said, adding that Thanathorn could lose his seat in Parliament if he is convicted.
Before leaving the police compound, Thanathorn flashed a three-finger salute, a resistance symbol borrowed by Thailand's anti-junta movement from the Hollywood movie The Hunger Games, as his supporters did the same while shouting, "Thanathorn, fight, fight!"
Thanathorn is already being investigated under Thailand's Computer Crimes Act for allegedly spreading false information when he criticised the junta in a Facebook Live discussion last year.
Supporter Woranuch Sirithonchai, who travelled three hours from her hometown of Rayong, said: "This incident happened in 2015 so why do they just summon him now? It's because he has gained popularity.".