Thailand’s stifled democracy: The legacy of Future Forward and its 1MBD allegations

Thanathorn_Juangroongruangkit of Thailand's future forward partyPhoto:Sirakorn Lamyai

Thailand’s Future Forward Party was dissolved after a campaign of legal harassment by the former junta. But the party’s legacy, including its 1MDB corruption allegations against Prayut, will have a lasting impact on the pro-democracy movement.

By Gene Ryack

In the weeks since Thailand’s Constitutional Court dissolved the popular progressive Future Forward party, thousands of students across the country have organized demonstrations calling for an end to the military’s grip on politics.

Late last month, the court dissolved the party, ruling that it had illegally taken 191.3 million baht (US$6 million) in loans from party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. The court banned Thanathorn and 15 other party leaders from politics for 10 years. 

But Future Forward’s leaders haven’t disappeared from the pro-democracy movement and, like other Thai progressive leaders stifled by the establishment, their influence will continue.

Soon after the court announced its decision, Future Forward accused Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and others of involvement in the multi-billion-dollar 1MDB scandal.

According to investigators in the US, former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak and his associates stole over $4.5 billion from the accounts of 1MDB, a Malaysian government-run investment and development firm, and laundered the money through international bank accounts.

Future Forward asserted that the previous Thai government—the military junta, also headed by Prayut—mishandled the detention of Swiss 1MDB whistleblower Xavier Justo. It alleges the Thai authorities worked with the Malaysian government to arrest him, possibly extracting a false confession, then refused to extradite him to Switzerland or allow US authorities access to him. 

“The junta government yearned for international acceptance after the coup…and formed a dark alliance with Malaysia,” Future Forward MP Pannika Wanich said at a press conference where she presented the party’s allegations. “The only person who can issue these orders is Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.” 

Future Forward also claims that the government sheltered Malaysian financier Jho Low, a key architect of the 1MDB crimes who is still at large and wanted in both Malaysia and the US. The government allegedly allowed Jho Low to enter and exit Thailand five times between 2016 and 2018 while he was wanted by Interpol.

Pannika also said that Jho Low has ties to an unnamed prominent Thai businessman.

The government has denied the 1MDB allegations and the charges likely won’t stick. Allegations of corruption against Thai officials aren’t new. Sitting Deputy Agriculture Minister Thammanat Prompao was convicted on heroin trafficking charges in Australia last year.

Rather than pushing for transparency, Prayut says he may use the case to launch yet another suit against Future Forward. “I told related agencies to investigate. If there is anything that can be sued they will do so,” Prayut told reporters.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Photo Credit: Kremlin

One year after Thailand’s supposed return to democracy, this is the reality of Thailand’s progressive movement: legal harassment from a government that voters increasingly see as illegitimate and corrupt. The 1MDB accusations against Prayut won’t lead to an investigation but they will help fuel a progressive movement that extends far deeper than Future Forward.

Legal harassment has become the norm in post-coup Thailand

Thai legal scholar Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang recently outlined in New Mandala how, since the 2006 coup, a near-fanatical obsession with “clean politics” and an anti-populist takeover of Thailand’s judiciary have allowed continuous legal attacks on progressive movements. 

Since their drafting, critics questioned both the 2007 and 2017 constitutions and the sweeping powers they afforded to judges. Future Forward recognized this and called for constitutional reform.

“The objective of this constitution is pretty simple; to maintain the power of the junta,” Thanathorn told Southeast Asia Globe before the party was dissolved. “There’s no democracy here, no participation of the people here. There is no balance of the powers between the executive, legislative and judicial [branches].”

The junta extended the terms of five out of nine judges on the current Constitutional Court. Their terms were set to expire after nine years in 2017. Through the courts, conservatives have used increasingly restrictive regulations on political parties to undermine and disqualify progressive leaders—most recently the Thai Raksa Chart and Future Forward parties. Thanathorn and others, including Khemthong, have termed these efforts “lawfare.”

Future Forward was brought down on shaky charges

The case that brought down Future Forward was the last of 29 reported cases against the party and Thanathorn, and at least the third case against them in the Constitutional Court. One case alleged that the party sought to overthrow the Thai monarchy and had ties to the Illuminati. The party has made statements in support of the monarchy and denied the Illuminati accusation.

Thai legal experts have questioned the ruling against Future Forward and the court reportedly refused to summon witnesses as requested by the party. 

The Election Commission also had to dig in order to get its final case against Future Forward accepted at the Constitutional Court. The commission reportedly set up two investigative committees that both said the case over Thanathorn’s loan should be dropped. Only after establishing a third committee did the commission find evidence that the party violated Section 66 of the election law, which bars individuals from donating more than 10 million baht to a political campaign, as well as Section 72, which bars parties from accepting funding from “illegitimate” sources. Thanthorn repeatedly reiterated that the funding was a loan.

The pro-military Palang Pracharath Party also received funding from questionable sources, including from a single banquet that reportedly raised 600 million baht. There were numerous allegations that the government’s own ministries and officials directly funded the party’s operations. The Election Commission investigated the allegations but found no evidence of wrongdoing. Before a recent round of censure hearings against Prayut and top government ministers, the opposition prepared to level five cases of corruption against them, but none stuck.

Thailand’s progressives movement extends beyond parties

Like supporters of banned Thaksin Shinawatra-backed parties, the movement behind Future Forward will continue to organize. The party galvanized additional support for long-standing progressive movements. 

Future Forward won 81 seats in last year’s elections, only a year after the party was founded. The party explicitly called for an end to the military’s control of politics, as well as land reform and financial transparency. 

Thanathorn himself is a billionaire—he’s among the 30 richest people in Thailand and he has three master’s degrees—but the Future Forward party spoke to a broader desire for change.

The party brought tech-savvy students and a more centrist pro-democracy base together through populist class-based social movements. Many of the party’s supporters are now more likely to join long-established grassroots networks like the People’s Movement for a Just Society (P-Move), a group pushing for an end to rights abuses against rural farmers; or the Assembly of the Poor, a decentralized movement for equitable development. Networks like these weren’t entirely aligned with Thanathorn—the Commoner Party and others spoke more directly to the key issues for Thailand’s rural lower classes—but his support is still broad and the impact will last.

A Bangkok Post columnist called the court’s ruling a “disenfranchisement” of the 6.3 million voters who supported the party in the election. Sixty-five Future Forward lawmakers in Thailand’s parliament can now join another party or form their own, but the seats of 11 party lawmakers—who are among the party leaders banned by the court—will remain empty. This gives the ruling military proxy coalition a much stronger majority in parliament.

The ruling against Future Forward is a reminder that political change in Thailand still won’t happen in parliament. In an era of legal harassment, progressive reform in Thailand necessarily goes beyond a single party.

There will also need to be significantly more momentum before any branch of the government is pressured into pursuing the 1MDB allegations against Prayuth. In the meantime, it becomes another case of corruption that chips away at the former junta’s waning legitimacy.