Thailand’s neighbors in Southeast Asia are condemning Bangkok for dissolving an opposition party Friday, which critics view as the latest sign democracy is in retreat in the region.
The Constitutional Court in Thailand has ordered the Future Forward Party to disband after ruling it violated campaign finance laws, which the party has called trumped up political charges. The court decision, which effectively returns Thailand to a two-party system of red shirts versus white shirts, was swiftly condemned by officials around the region.
"The Future Forward Party is the latest in a long line of opposition political parties in Thailand to be banned,” according to Francisca Castro, a member of the House of Representatives in the Philippines. “It is increasingly apparent that any party that seeks to threaten the military and the establishment’s political hegemony will not be tolerated.”
She said the ruling proves the Thai military has not surrendered some of its power for the sake of democracy as it had promised to do.
The military took over the government in a coup in 2014 and did not hold a political election again until 2019. The poll was supposed to pave the way for Thailand to return to representative democracy, but election observers said it was rigged in favor of the military.
Despite the slim odds, the Future Forward Party formed in 2018 and garnered 6 million votes in 2019, becoming known for its gesture of dissent, the three-finger salute taken from the dystopian Hunger Games books and movies.
The Thai court also said the party’s leaders were banned from politics for 10 years.
"The penalty seems wholly disproportionate to the infraction,” said Abel Da Silva, a member of Parliament in Timor-Leste. He noted that Future Forward appeared to be “singled out” because it was a threat to the ruling party.
The court decision is just one more example of governments in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations abusing the law to silence dissent, according to the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights advocacy group. It referred to this latest move as a pattern of “lawfare,” where authorities use the judiciary to go after political opponents.
"The pattern can be witnessed in Cambodia, where the only viable opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, has been dissolved, and its members and activists are facing spurious charges,” the advocacy group said in a statement. It also pointed to the Philippines, where outspoken politicians, particularly those “who have been critical of President [Rodrigo] Duterte’s war on drugs are either in jail or are facing a raft of questionable criminal charges.”
The move against Future Forward has triggered criticism inside Thailand as well. The Bangkok Post called it a “dagger to democracy,” writing in an editorial it would foster resentment among voters, particularly the young generation that tends to favor the new party.
Thailand previously has had vigorously contested democratic elections, in contrast to many of its neighbors. Laos, Vietnam, and Singapore are generally dominated by a single party. The military remains in power in Myanmar, and Malaysia, for the first time in half a century, has had only one new party come to power, in 2018.
Harvard University political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue, however, the 2014 coup that toppled Shinawatra Yingluck, who was then Thailand's first female prime minister, brought the country into the authoritarian ranks of such nations as Hungary, ruled by Viktor Orban, and Egypt, led by Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.
In their 2018 book How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt cite the coup in Thailand, along with democratic abuses in places like Turkey and Poland. “There is a mounting perception that democracy is in retreat all over the world.”