Election regulators seek to dissolve reformist political party

(Bangkok, March 20, 2024)–The Government of Thailand should prevent the forced dissolution of the Move Forward Party (MFP), which won the largest number of votes during Thailand’s last elections in May 2023, said Fortify Rights today. On March 12, 2024, the Election Commission of Thailand initiated steps to disband the MFP, a drastic political move contradicting Thailand’s bid for membership on the U.N. Human Rights Council.

“If Thai authorities don’t reverse course on dissolving the Move Forward Party, then U.N. member states should not vote for Thailand to join the Human Rights Council,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer at Fortify Rights. “There is a discrepancy between the country’s international aspirations and internal political realities. The dissolution of the party, which has a strong democratic mandate, would undermine Thailand’s qualifications for any role on the Human Rights Council.”

The Election Commission’s March 12 recommendation to the Constitutional Court to dissolve the MFP is based on the party’s campaign to amend Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, which deals with lèse-majesté or the crime of insulting the monarchy. The U.N., members of the diplomatic community, human rights groups, and others have long criticized how the government has used criminal defamation to quell political dissent.

If the MFP is dissolved, its leaders could be banned from Thai politics for ten years.

Post-election protest in Bangkok after poll-winning Move Forward Party was blocked from forming a government. ©Fortify Rights, 2024

Thailand should urgently decriminalize defamation in all its forms, said Fortify Rights. Under international law, imprisonment for acts of defamation is considered disproportionate, excessive, and unnecessary, and custodial penalties for defamation have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, the organization said.

The Election Commission’s action against the MFP aligns with Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruling on January 31, 2024, finding that the party’s proposed legal amendments to Section 112 undermined Thailand’s constitutional monarchy. The Constitutional Court held that advocating for such amendments is considered an attempt to abolish Thailand’s constitutional democracy with the King as head of state, contravening Section 49 of Thailand’s Constitution. The Election Commission, citing the court’s ruling and claiming evidence against the MFP’s actions, stated that its decision to disband the MFP was unanimous.

The MFP proposed amending Thailand’s lèse-majesté law to better align the country’s legal framework with international freedom of expression standards while ensuring protection against excessive penalties for criminal defamation. The proposal includes reducing the maximum imprisonment term for defaming the King from 15 years to one year and/or a fine of 300,000 Thai Baht (approximately US$8,300). The amendment also proposed reducing the sentence for defaming the Queen, the Heir, or the Regent from up to 15 years to six months with an optional fine of 200,000 Thai Baht (approximately US$5,500). Notably, the amendment sought to exempt individuals from punishment if criticisms in question were conducted in good faith according to the intention of the Constitution. The party highlighted its commitment to addressing misuses of the law and its potential as a future source of conflict. 

In response to the Election Commission’s recommendation, MFP spokesperson Parit Wacharasindhu told journalists, “We have no intention to overthrow the democratic system with the king as the head of state.” The party has consistently stated it has no intention to overthrow the monarchy or subvert the constitutional order.

On February 21, 2020, the Constitutional Court ruled to dissolve the Future Forward Party (FFP), the predecessor of the Move Forward Party, and imposed long-term political bans on its key figures, including the party’s founders Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul. The court deemed a 191.2 million Thai Baht (approximately US$5,300,000) loan from Thanathorn to FFP illegal as it exceeded the allowed donation limit per donor per year.

Before any ruling, the Constitutional Court should provide the MFP with due process, including the opportunity to present evidence and articulate its positions on these issues, said Fortify Rights.

At the U.N. General Assembly on September 24, 2022, the Thai government announced its intention to stand for election to the U.N. Human Rights Council for the 2025 to 2027 term. The country’s intention to vie for a council seat underscores a commitment to uphold human rights standards. However, the pledge appears contradictory given the ongoing political and legal challenges faced by reformist parties like the MFP.

The U.N. Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body comprising 47 states with the duty to promote and protect human rights worldwide. The U.N. General Assembly resolution establishing the Human Rights Council states that members elected to the body “shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.”

“14.4 million Thai voters democratically support the MFP,” said Matthew Smith. “The efforts to dissolve the party are political in every sense. Thailand must ensure that its election commission remains impartial, that its democracy is sound, and it must protect freedom of expression and association for all without fear of reprisal.”

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