Two senior cabinet ministers, Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan sentenced to 7 years and 4 months while Digital Economy and Society Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta received a seven-year sentence for taking part in the People’s Democratic Reform Committee protests which helped overthrow the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra between November 2013 and May 2014.
The Criminal Court in Bangkok has thrown a curveball at the government after it sentenced two senior cabinet ministers to jail for terms in excess of seven years and a deputy minister to a five-year sentence on Wednesday.
The Thai government of Prayut Chan ocha suffered a blow on Wednesday when three ministers including two in the cabinet, were handed down stiff jail sentences by the Criminal Court in Bangkok for their role in the anti-government protests from the end of 2013 to May 2014 which ultimately unseated the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in a military coup on the 22nd of May 2014 led by the current Prime Minister.
Before the court on Wednesday were 25 leaders linked with the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), a platform then calling for democratic reform but which was targeted at the overarching power of the Pheu Thai Party.
What is still Thailand’s largest party, under the previous constitution, decisively won the 2011 election in a landslide ushering in Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, as Prime Minister.
Mr Thaksin was also deposed in a military coup on the 19th of September 2006.
All 25 defendants pleaded not guilty in 2018 but today were convicted of ‘insurrection’ and ‘terrorism’ related charges linked with the massive protests
Today’s shocking verdicts and jail sentences follow the arraignment of those involved with the People’s Democratic Reform Committee in 2018 before the court when the defendants pleaded not guilty.
The ministers who were found guilty today and sentenced to terms of imprisonment for their role in what the prosecution termed an ‘insurrection’ against the government were only appointed to the cabinet in July 2019 following the March election that year.
This was held under the new 2017 constitution, seen by many, as crafted by the military but inspired by the PDRC movement and its quest for political reform.
The new charter favours smaller parties and minorities as well as protecting the country from what was then perceived as the usurpation of power by those with financial backing.
Some of the defendants before the court, on Wednesday, were also convicted on terrorism-related charges.
Two cabinet ministers sent to jail for over seven years each by the Criminal Court on Wednesday
In court today, Buddhipongse Punnakanta, the Digital Economy and Society Minister, a key protest leader at that time and who later worked at the Prime Minister’s office, before being elevated to a ministerial role, was handed down a jail term of seven years.
He was joined by the Education Minister, Nataphol Teepsuwan, who received an even longer sentence of seven years and 4 months behind bars for his role in leading the street protests which disrupted Bangkok for months and brought the country to a state of stasis with counter-protests forming by the time the army moved in on May 22nd 2014.
It has been a particularly bruising few days for Mr Nataphol who came in last in terms of his political support in parliament in last Saturday’s motion of no confidence against government ministers already making him a marked man, politically.
Leader of PDRC received a five-year term
The leader of the movement, Suthep Thaugsuban, was handed a five-year jail term as was the current Deputy Transport Minister, Thaworn Senneam.
The verdict of the court is an earthquake for the government meaning, at the very least, the possibility of a cabinet reshuffle although the ministers may appeal the court’s decision.
Political implications of the judgment are now beginning to be analysed but they could be significant
The judgment will no doubt be studied closely by the government key legal advisors and Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam.
The verdicts may also increase speculation on the nature of the 2014 coup and the relationship between the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) and those behind the seizure of power in that year.
Suthep claimed in June 2014 that he had the support of General Prayut, a suggestion flatly and quickly rejected by the current Prime Minister
Weeks after the coup, Suthep Thaugsuban claimed that he had been in discussions with the coup leader and current Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha.
At a dinner at the Pacific Club in Bangkok, Mr Suthep claimed he had been discussing the possibility of a coup with General Prayut and strategies to keep the Shinawatra family from power.
Mr Suthep said he even had personal interactions with General Prayut on the LINE social network application.
‘Before martial law was declared, General Prayut told me: ‘Khun Suthep and your masses of PDRC supporters are too exhausted. It’s now the duty of the army to take over the task,’ he told his audience in June 2014.
The claims were strenuously denied by a spokesman for the former junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), at the time, Colonel Winthai Suwaree, on behalf of General Prayut who denied ever engaging in private chats with the PDRC leader.
Colonel Winthai explained that the current Prime Minister, who was then the army chief and junta leader, was only trying to encourage all the parties involved not to break the law and to pull back from more serious conflict.