The ruling by the Constitutional Court on Future Forward party leader Thanathorn Juangroongrueangkit’s media shareholding case was not unexpected. Indeed, it would have been a shock if the decision went another way.
This article is not a commentary on the substance of the ruling; it has already happened, and there isn’t much to be gained from discussing the merits of the legal arguments involved. Rather, I want to discuss a couple of key political takeaways from the judgement.
1. First and foremost, I want to echo what Parit Watcharasindhu said in his analysis of the court’s ruling: that Thais should be allowed to comment on the Constitutional Court’s decisions.
This law is new; it was only passed in March 2018 under the military government. Technically, criticism of the court is not illegal; only criticism that is deemed “dishonest”, “rude”, “ironic” or “malicious” is in violation of the law. But it still essentially amounts to a blanket ban of criticism; how can one know what is considered honest and polite? This is a restriction on freedom of speech that only continues to tighten a charged political atmosphere.
2. Rule by law rather than rule of law continues in Thailand. The term ‘rule by law’ is often associated with China, in which there exists a legalist tradition of using the law as a tool to facilitate social control (yi fa zhi guo, governing the nation with law). But legalism has also been prominent in Thai politics. Duncan McCargo wrote in 2015:
Most studies of Thai constitutions and constitution-drafting have focused on the ways in which successive drafters have sought to deploy legal engineering to shape politics and society — a “rules of the game” approach…In the Thai context, legalism often appears a natural ally to authoritarianism, and is closely linked to a dominant culture of legal conservatism.Duncan McCargo
A less generous way to put it would be that Thailand is addicted to judicial coups, where the law can be weaponized against political enemies. One famous instance of this came in 2008, when then-prime minister Samak Sundaravej was removed from office for appearing on the ‘Tasting and Grumbling’ cooking show. I was nine years old then, and I cheered the results. To me, then, it seemed like the triumph of the rule of law over the corrupt politicians.
Of course, as I looked at politics from a more comparative lens, I came to realize that this was not the case; heads of government elsewhere were not booted out of office for minor infractions, and judiciaries in other countries were unable to deploy such overbearing power over the executive and legislature. Unfortunately, over ten years later, Thailand is stuck in the same trap.
Rule by law is not dangerous simply because of how it perverts the rule of law. It has had, is having, and will continue to have a corrosive effect on trust in judicial processes in Thailand by the perception that the force of the law is often applied selectively when it serves the interests of those in power. . This politics of resentment was illustrated clearly on Twitter, when the hashtag #ธนาธร (#Thanathorn) began trending globally as many Twitter users cried out against what they called injustice.
3. What is the future of progressive politics in Thailand? The threats against Future Forward have not ended. Further legal cases can lead to Thanathorn’s imprisonment and even Future Forward’s dissolution.
Twin issues arise. Firstly, Thanathorn has emphasized that he is hesitant to call for street protests and still sees parliament as the best way to advocate for political change. This is a perfectly reasonable argument; in a normal parliamentary democracy, parliament is where the locus of power should lie, and Future Forward as the third largest party in the lower house has rightfully embraced the legislative process.
Street protests are disruptive and come with a high human cost when they turn the wrong direction. But should the powers that be continue to close the channels that progressive-minded politicians and ordinary people have to express themselves, Future Forward’s supporters will only become more tempted to take to the streets. As Thanathorn has said, “If they will not let me into parliament, I will be with the people.” But what if the party isn’t allowed in parliament?
Secondly, another question arises of whether or not Future Forward can move on without its iconic founder. Thanathorn has been a major figurehead for the movement; indeed, he was named on the TIME 100 Next list for his role in energizing an exciting new party. But that does not necessarily mean that Thanathorn himself is someone Future Forward can do without. The party’s secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, for example, has become a visible figure in parliamentary debates, from which Thanathorn has been absent due to the earlier suspension of his MP duties.
It is also important to note that the rise of Future Forward this year, was not merely the rise of a political party; it was also a phenomenon that brought more young people into the political process. The party’s themes of demilitarization, democratization and decentralization have captivated the passions of millions nationwide. Regardless of whether its leaders are banned from politics, or if the party itself is dissolved: supporters, most of whom who are now implacably opposed to the current sham democracy, will not go anywhere.