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Thai Court Orders Opposition Party to Halt Royal Reform Push

(Bloomberg) -- A top court in Thailand ordered the country’s main opposition Move Forward Party to cease all attempts to amend the country’s stringent royal insult law, a centerpiece of its reformist agenda that helped it win last year’s election.

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The Constitutional Court on Wednesday ruled that the party’s campaign to loosen Article 112, known as lese majeste law, violated the charter. The nine-member court said in a unanimous ruling that Move Forward’s push for changes amounted to an attempt to overthrow the constitutional monarchy.

The reformist party and its prime minister candidate Pita Limjaroenrat covertly pushed an agenda to “destroy” the form of government with the king as head of state, under the guise of a proposal to amend the controversial law, the court said.

Read More: ‘Bangkok Spring’ Sets Up Showdown Over Role of Thai Monarchy

The bid to abolish or amend the law, which carries up to 15 years of jail for each offense, has been carried out continuously in the form of a movement that relied on protests, social media campaigns, the legislative process and the election, the court said. “If this is allowed to continue, it won’t be too far-fetched to think that it will eventually lead to the overthrowing of the democratic regime of government with the king as head of state,” the judges said.

The pledge to reform the draconian law was a key part of Move Forward’s election campaign that helped it sweep 40% of popular votes in the general election in May. While the guilty verdict did not result in an immediate dissolution of the outfit, it will rob the party of its flagship agenda that had resonated with the urban voters and youth.

“The ruling raises the prospect of Move Forward’s eventual dissolution and the potential implications, should it happen, for political and social stability,” said Peter Mumford, Southeast Asia practice head at Eurasia Group.

Thailand was rocked by anti-government protests and unprecedented calls for monarchy reforms in 2020 following the disbanding of Future Forward, the predecessor of Move Forward.

“Any action that causes the monarchy to lose its above-politics and politically-neutral status is considered an attempt to erode it, cause it to deteriorate, or weaken it,” according to the court.

Move Forward leader Chaithawat Tulathon said the verdict risked the monarchy becoming an even bigger point of conflict in Thai politics. The party will assess the court’s full verdict to prepare for potential legal hurdles to come, he said.

“We refute that the attempt was an alibi or meant to cause any deterioration of the monarchy,” Pita told reporters after the ruling, adding that the verdict has larger implications for Thai society. “This is about the future, it’s about the health of Thai democracy and the political landscape going forward,” he said.

The verdict came a week after the same court ruled that 43-year-old Pita was not guilty of breaching election rules for holding shares in a now-defunct media company and lifted a six-month suspension on his lawmaker duties.

The military-appointed Senate had cited his media shareholdings as one of the reasons for blocking his nomination for premiership — despite Pita’s coalition commanding a majority of lawmakers in the lower house. Eventually, a new coalition headed by Pheu Thai joined hands with a string of conservative and pro-military groups to install Srettha Thavisin as the prime minister.

The verdict “eradicates much hope of changing the conservative status quo via formal parliamentary channels,” said Napon Jatusripitak, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “A hard limit has been set, and this casts the Move Forward’s role as a party institution into a crisis of identity.”

Thailand has a history of moving against pro-democracy parties, politicians, and activists. Move Forward’s predecessor, Future Forward Party, was disbanded in 2020 after the charter court found it guilty of illegal loans from its founder, auto-parts tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. He and other party leaders were banned from politics for 10 years.

At least 263 people have been charged under the lese majeste law since November 2020, according Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

--With assistance from Pathom Sangwongwanich.

(Updates with comments from analyst in sixth paragraph.)

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