Bangkok, Thailand – Thousands of protesters have poured onto the streets of central Bangkok in a major show of support for an opposition party facing the threat of dissolution.
Saturday’s rally took place just days after Thailand’s Election Commission voted to disband the Future Forward Party (FFP), ruling it had violated the electoral law by accepting loans from its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. The case is now with the country’s Constitutional Court.
Founded in 2018, the FFP stunned observers by coming third in March’s controversial election, which saw Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former military government leader, return to power as civilian prime minister. FFP supporters allege the election was “rigged” and a “sham”.
“Today is a show of strength so that in the future others may come,” Thanathorn, a fierce critic of Prayuth, told the jubilant crowd.
“This is just the beginning,” the charismatic 41-year-old leader said, pledging more protests in the future. “We’re here first as a test run. Prayuth, don’t be too afraid. The real thing is next month,” he added, without elaborating.
Held under light police presence, the rally, believed to be the biggest since a 2014 military coup first brought Prayuth to power, brought together people of all ages in one of Bangkok’s busiest districts.
Some demonstrators held up signs calling for a change of government while others shouted slogans such as “Dictatorship Out! Let Democracy Live!”
“We want to claim our rights. Because our government now is not really promoting freedom,” said Jo, a 31-year-old IT professional.
“They use the law to cheat people. It’s not fair for the people of Thailand.”
‘Catalysed a change’
Thai political analysts agree that authorities see Thanathorn and his progressive agendas as a significant threat. FFP opponents argue that the party violated electoral laws and should be dissolved.
Late last month, Thanathorn was stripped of his parliamentarian status after the Constitutional Court found him to have broken election rules by holding media shares while campaigning in the election. Thanathorn, the scion of a billionaire car parts maker, had denied the charges.
The military-backed establishment has filed 28 legal cases against FFP since its launch in March 2018, with Thanathorn also facing allegations of sedition, among others.
“The establishment has gone after Thanathorn with such force because FFP has catalysed a change in how citizens imagine the Thai polity and their role in it,” said Tyrell Haberkorn, associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an expert on state violence and dissident politics in Thailand.
“This is no simple realignment of which elites hold power, or who controls lucrative links between politicians, the military and capital, but an entirely new way of doing politics.”
Thanathorn has been a vocal opponent of oligopolistic and monopolistic economic structures, while his party’s positions include the abolition of military conscription and opposition to a monarchy-related bill that would give the country’s king personal control over two military units.
At a press event earlier this month, Thanathorn said he viewed his role in Thai politics “as a chain breaker”.
“I would like to break the chains that are preventing us from achieving further,” he said. “I want to break the chains that are stopping us from being a better country.”