BANGKOK – Several thousand supporters of a popular opposition party in Thailand that is under threat of dissolution rallied Saturday in the nation's capital in one of the largest political demonstrations since a 2014 coup.
The crowd, which gathered mostly on an elevated walkway connecting malls and mass transit stations and spreading out to the streets below, heard the leader of the Future Forward Party, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkrit, make an impassioned speech urging them to stand up and fight for democracy.
The party came from nowhere to finish third in this year's general election, the first poll since the military in 2014 staged a coup that was led by Prayuth Chan-ocha, the current prime minister. Its progressive, anti-military agenda has needled Thailand's conservative establishment but has struck a chord with the young.
Since the election, Future Forward has faced a string of legal cases. Last month, the Constitutional Court stripped Thanathorn of his lawmaker status, ruling that he violated a regulation on media ownership.
This past Wednesday, the Election Commission ruled that the party had broken the law by accepting an illegal loan from Thanathorn, who is a billionaire, and recommended it be dissolved. Few people expect the Constitutional Court, which is seen as closely aligned with the country's military-royalist establishment, to disagree.
The concerted legal moves have angered supporters of the opposition party, who believe it is the victim of a conspiracy.
"I think it shows that people will not tolerate dictatorship anymore," Thanathorn said of the large turnout as he left the rally.
Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok earlier this month, Thanathorn said that the legal cases against him and his party were "ïrrelevant" compared with an effort by the establishment to not allow "peaceful transitions through democracy to happen.”
“Nobody knows what could happen when people lost faith in the parliament system, where there is no hope left, where there is no possibility to win the power peacefully,” Thanathorn said.
“The establishment, the junta, they seem certain that they could contain it, that they could control it. But many think otherwise. Many I talked to are not convinced. I think this is a very dangerous gamble," he said.
Political battles caused serious turmoil in Thailand from 2006 to 2014, including two coups and massive street protests involving contending groups, police and the military.
Thanathorn, whose family fortune comes from the auto parts industry, founded his party in March 2018 as Thailand was heading toward an election. The party’s initial support came from youth and young professionals, but it proved to have wider appeal in many parts of the country.
The party is seeking to amend the constitution to make it more democratic. While Thailand was under the rule of a military junta from 2014 until earlier this year, the government pushed through a new constitution to give more power to the military and the courts and senior bureaucrats at the expense of elected office holders.
The party also is waging a campaign against military conscription and in the face of threats against it has been urging people not to accept the status quo and be willing to stand up for their rights.