11 July 2024

Former digital economy and society minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta’s political future is hanging in the balance after the Criminal Court last month sentenced him to seven years in jail for his role in 2013-14 protests against the Yingluck government.

As per constitutional rules, he lost his Cabinet seat immediately as a consequence of the prison sentence. But it remains unclear if his status as an MP for the core ruling Palang Pracharath Party is deemed forfeit as well.

Buddhipongse, 52, will be keeping his fingers crossed after the Election Commission (EC) on March 1 resolved to seek a Constitutional Court ruling on whether his MP status, along with that of others found guilty in the same case, remains intact after they were released on bail.

He was among eight key figures of the now-defunct People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), which led protests against the Yingluck Shinawatra government. Turmoil stemming from the protests culminated in the May 2014 military coup.

Two days after his bail release on Feb 26, Buddhipongse showed signs of disillusionment after 20 years in politics.

“Tired, lifeless and losing faith. It’s because what I did was so worthless,” he wrote in a Facebook post. However, he said he did not regret his past behaviour as he had acted with conscience and good faith.

Clashing arguments

Views are divided over whether Buddhipongse — and other convicted former PDRC leaders — have lost their seats in Parliament. The Constitution states that MPs lose their status upon being sent to prison.

One side argues that Buddhipongse was not actually imprisoned, as he was released temporarily after the Criminal Court referred his bail request to the Appeals Court.

The other side insists that Buddhipongse’s MP status expired on Feb 24, when he was detained on remand for a day before being released on bail on Feb 26.

Palang Pracharath deputy leader and legal expert Paiboon Nititawan petitioned the EC chairman earlier this month, saying that since the Appeals Court granted Buddhipongse bail, the Criminal Court had not issued an order for his remand.

Paiboon argued that Buddhipongse had not actually been imprisoned. He cited a Constitutional Court verdict in 2019, which mentioned a “court order for remand” when refusing a convicted politician temporary release and sending him to jail while his bail request was being considered.

Political debut

Buddhipongse joined the Democrat Party in 2001 and entered Parliament the following year after winning a Bangkok by-election.

After the Democrat Apirak Kosayodhin was elected Bangkok governor in 2004, Buddhipongse became spokesman for the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) — the first holder of the position.

Two years later, he was appointed deputy Bangkok governor in charge of education, social development, sports & tourism, and commerce.

In 2010, Buddhipongse became deputy spokesman for the Democrat-led government of Abhisit Vejjajiva. He was then elected as Bangkok MP in the 2011 general election.

In 2013, as protests swelled against a bill for blanket amnesty endorsed by the Yingluck government, Buddhipongse was one of nine Democrat politicians who left the party to join the rallies.

Soon after, the nine politicians joined with allies to form the PDRC, which led anti-government protests that culminated in the May 2014 coup.

Buddhipongse was among 39 PDRC leaders subsequently indicted on multiple charges including sedition and terrorism. 

In 2018, Buddhipongse joined the post-coup government led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, appointed as the PM’s deputy secretary-general and government spokesman.

He resigned that post in February 2019 and joined the junta-linked Palang Pracharath Party before being elected as a party-list MP in the March 2019 general election.

Buddhipongse was then appointed minister of digital economy and society in the coalition government led by Prayut.

While in office, he tackled fake news in social media, blocked access to adult websites including Pornhub.com and also cracked down on online gambling.

However, his past returned to haunt him on Feb 24, when the Criminal Court sentenced Bhuddipongse and seven other former PDRC leaders to jail for terms of between two and 11 years. 

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk