Thai opposition leader says he faces sedition charges

The leader of a new political party that gained prominence in Thailand's election last month has been charged with sedition. Thanathorn is part of the opposition alliance trying to unseat the military junta.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the leader of Thailand's progressive Future Forward Party, on Saturday denied charges of sedition filed against him by the ruling military government. 

His anti-junta movement came third in last month's elections after campaigning on a pledge to oust army chief Prayuth Chan-oocha, who has kept a tight grip on power since a 2014 coup. A guilty conviction could cost Thanathorn his seat in parliament, delivering a blow to an alliance of opposition parties trying to form a government.

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What do the charges involve?

  • Thanathorn is alleged to have broken article 116 of the Thai criminal code, which is equivalent to sedition.
  • Police said the complaint, filed by the government, relates to anti-junta protests in 2015.
  • Thanathorn allegedly helped a protest leader who had violated a junta ban on gatherings of more than five people.
  • If found guilty he faces up to nine years in prison.
  • He will be tried in a military court.
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'Enemy of the junta'

Hundreds of Thanathorn's supporters greeted the politician as he arrived at a Bangkok police station on Saturday to answer the summons. Many shouted "Keep fighting, Thanathorn!" and held up signs that said "Military, get out!"

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Thanathorn rejected the charges, calling them politically motivated: "Why does this come a week after the election?" he asked.

"We believe we are innocent. I did everything in good faith," he told reporters in the Thai capital, adding that it was "unsettling" he was being tried in a military court, rather than a criminal one.

Human Rights Watch's Sunai Phasuk told AFP that Future Forward's policies had made Thanathorn "an enemy of the junta." 

"By seeking to prosecute Thanathorn in a military tribunal ... the junta has turned Thailand into a rogue state," he said.

Thailand's deputy police chief, Srivara Ransibrahmanakul, said the charges dating back to 2015 were only being brought now because several staff reshuffles meant the case had stalled.

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Who is Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit? Before entering politics, the charismatic 40-year-old billionaire ran an auto parts empire owned by his family. In early 2018, he resigned from the company and launched Future Forward. The party soon gained a following for its strong youth focus and progressive, anti-junta policies. Its rapid rise to prominence has also made it a target for the military, which has sought to stifle dissent by filing criminal charges against critics.

What happened in the Thai elections? The elections on March 24 marked the first democratic vote since the 2014 coup. It's still not clear who will form the next government — the preliminary results were disputed, and a final tally is only expected to be ratified next month.

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A change of government? Junta leader Prayuth is tipped to return to power after winning the popular vote. Future Forward came third, garnering 6.2 million votes. The party is one of at least six democratic opposition groups that have joined forces in a bid to form a government and prevent Prayuth's reelection. 

Why the charges against Thanathorn are significant: If found guilty, he would likely be disqualified from holding a seat in parliament, harming the opposition alliance's chances of ending military rule.

What happens next: Thanathorn is due to deliver written testimony to police on May 15. Besides the sedition charges, he is also facing a cybercrime charge over a speech he made on social media in which he criticized the junta. Prosecutors are due to decide later this month whether he will be tried for that offense.

nm/tj (AP, Reuters, AFP)

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