Thailand: Anti-military party leader faces sedition charges

Rising opposition leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit summoned by police after army files complaint for 'disobedience'.

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    Thailand: Anti-military party leader faces sedition charges
    Thanathorn greets his supporters as he arrives at a police station in Bangkok [Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

    Bangkok, Thailand - Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, 40, raised three fingers in the air at a crowd of hundreds of supporters and journalists before walking into Bangkok's Pathum Wan police station for questioning on Saturday.

    The salute, adopted from the Hunger Games films, has become a popular and powerful sign of defiance against the military leadership in Thailand.

    "Thank you for coming out," he said before entering the building.

    Thanathorn, the rising opposition leader of Thailand's popular new political party, Future Forward, met police to address new sedition charges filed against him by government representatives for "causing disorder and disobedience among the public" that could lead to "the acts of rebellion".

    According to police, he faces three charges for allegedly breaking article 116 for sedition, article 189 for assisting others who committed a serious crime, and article 215 for an unlawful assembly of more than 10 people. Thanathorn has denied the charges, calling them politically motivated.

    Representatives from the United Nations, various international rights groups and 11 other foreign embassies observed the process today.

    Future Forward party, the influential political group that has gained unprecedented popularity since being formed in 2015, came in third on election day, winning 6.2 million votes.

    And judging by how well the progressive and youth-favoured party did, many observers suspect this latest round of legal charges are a response to Future Forward's commitment to undo the legacy of military rule and undertake democratic reforms.

    The sedition charges were filed just a day after Thailand's army chief, General Apirat Kongsompong, warned supporters of anti-military government parties, like Future Forward, and anyone who threatens Thailand's constitutional monarchy, to be cautious.

    He said that the military will do whatever is necessary to protect the country's "Thai-style democratic system".

    "The army does the army's duty, which is to protect, maintain, and defend the institutions of nation, religion, and monarchy," General Apirat said on Tuesday.

    After receiving the police summons, Thanathorn took to social media to respond to the charges.

    "It's clear now that the old-school political game won't end after the election, but is only getting more intense, because they're afraid of Future Forward," he wrote on Facebook.

    "They're afraid of our wins that exceeded the expectations of many, afraid of politics based only on policies and ideologies that can build faith and support from the public without money or authority, afraid of the truth that nearly 6.3 million people sincerely support Future Forward Party," he wrote.

    Immediately after his posts, #savethanathorn shot to Thailand's top trending hashtags.

    Supporters of Thanathorn react during his arrival at a police station in Bangkok [Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

    In the months leading up to the election, government representatives took up a cybercrime case against Thanathorn for criticising the government on a Facebook Live video, although it is yet to be determined if he will go to trial for that charge.

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    They also lobbed more legal cases at his party for allegedly spreading false information.

    The charges could have cost the party their ability to run - as the Election Commission could have disbanded them.

    Although these charges were costly, there is no doubt that this latest complaint is the most severe thus far, as Thanathorn could face nine years in prison if he is convicted.

    Police have also summoned prominent opposition activist, Nuttaa "Bow" Mahattana, and a local news commentator for VoiceTV, Sirote Klampaiboon, for allegedly conspiring to defame the Election Commission through their criticism online.

    Rights groups are also monitoring the case with concern.

    Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch's senior researcher on Thailand, told Al Jazeera that the legal cases against Thanathorn prove that the military government is using undemocratic tactics to maintain control.

    "The criminal cases against Thanathorn show the military government's contempt for the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful dissent. It a glaring example of how draconian laws are the pulled out of thin air and arbitrarily enforced to punish the prominent opposition leader," he said.

    "Thai people went to vote for Thanathorn and Future Forward Party in expectation that their voices would bring about change and end military dictatorship. But it is clear that the military government has no commitment to fulfil its promises to make Thailand a rights-respecting democratic country," he continued. "The election is over and now what we see in Thailand is entrenched repression."

    Police say the sedition charges date all the way back to 2015 when a pro-democracy group staged a protest against the military government.

    Although police claim Thanathorn allegedly helped protesters flee from a police station, leaders from the pro-democracy group say he did not play a role in helping them.

    Recounts and by-elections

    Two weeks have passed since the country held elections, yet the nation still doesn't know precisely who won.

    On election day, a series of awkward events, compounded by an array of suspicious ballot counting, left the country confused as to what exactly happened.

    WATCH: Anxious wait for election results in Thailand

    But the Election Commission released unofficial numbers placing Phalang Pracharat, the military-backed party, in first place, with Pheu Thai, overthrown former Prime Minister Thaksin's alleged proxy party, in second, and Future Forward coming in third.

    But due to the voting discrepancies found on March 24, Thai authorities have ordered recounts and by-elections in areas where they found abnormalities.

    The Election Commission stated that the numbers of voters at these locations did not match the numbers of ballots submitted.

    They said that they would be recounting in two polling stations in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen, along with by-elections at six polling stations spread throughout the country.

    Analysts believe these recounts will have minimal effect on the outcome. 

    Rigged election?

    Now, opposition groups are claiming that the elections were rigged as the Election Commission is backed by the military.

    Shortly after the election, Future Forward joined an alliance with other anti-military parties, led by the powerful Pheu Thai party, in an attempt to form a government to block military-backed Prayuth Chan-ocha from maintaining power.

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    On top of this, political activists are also questioning the controversial Election Commission.

    Opposition activists submitted a petition to the National Anti-Corruption Commission to ask that the Supreme Court impeach seven Election Commissioners for the voting abnormalities found on March 24.

    They have collected over 7,000 signatures so far but expect to receive much more support in the coming days.

    Academics throughout the country have also voiced their concern over what seems to be a rising climate of litigation as a tool to silence dissidence.

    "Clearly, it's [the sedition charges] an attempt to weaken the "democratic front" coalition led by Pheu Thai and Future Forward to oppose to the new government supposedly led by Prayuth," says Prajak Kongkirati, head of the government and politics department at Thammasat University in Bangkok. 

    He told Al Jazeera that the military-backed government and establishment are afraid of Thanathorn because they know he presents a new political movement with a powerful progressive social force.

    "They are also afraid of the 'political awakening' of the youth and of over six million voters who voted for Future Forward. But, with the alleged electoral fraud, this highly politically motivated charge against Thanathorn could backfire - delegitimising the junta [military government] even further."

    Outside of the crowded police station, hundreds of onlookers screamed chants of support as Thanathorn moved towards his vehicle to leave.

    "We believe in our innocence," he told the crowd before leaving, adding: "This isn't about me. This is about everyone who fights for justice."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News