15 June 2024

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling banning former MP Pannika Wanich from elections and political office for life has been criticized as political “capital punishment” by many observers.

Ending her political life was too harsh a penalty for the young politician to pay, they said. Even Pannika’s political enemy, Pareena Kraikupt, showed sympathy, saying that she disagreed with the lifetime ban.

“If politicians commit wrongdoing, legal action is taken against them under criminal or civil law. They get fined or jailed. But they should not be deprived of their rights in the name of ethics,” Pareena said.

A former Palang Pracharath Party MP for Ratchaburi province, Pareena has herself been banned from politics for life. In April 2022, the same court ruled her guilty of gravely violating MPs’ ethical code by occupying state land in her home province of Ratchaburi.

‘No stopping before finish line’

On September 20, the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions found Pannika guilty of breaching ethical standards for an act that was deemed disrespectful to the monarchy.

Thailand imposes harsh punishment for insulting the Royal family, but critics say the penalties have been used as a political tool to eliminate those who oppose the elitist establishment.

Pannika, 35, has defiantly vowed to stay engaged in political activities through the Progressive Movement, a political pressure group she co-founded with other key figures from the Future Forward Party following its disbandment in 2020.

“No one can part me from my rights … We have come this far on our journey. And we will not stop before we reach the finish line,” she wrote on Facebook the day after the court ruling.

Pannika was a key figure in the now-defunct Future Forward Party, serving as its spokesperson and director of communications since its founding in 2018. When the party was dissolved by court order in February 2020 for illegal donations by leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, she and its other executives were banned from politics for 10 years.

New roles after previous ban

After Future Forward’s disbandment, Pannika set up the Progressive Movement along with other key figures from the party, including Thanathorn and its secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul.

In the run-up to the May 14 general election this year, Pannika acted as a “campaign assistant” for Move Forward, helping to promote Future Forward’s successor in many provinces across the country. The party came first in the election, winning 151 MP seats, but failed to secure majority support in the parliamentary vote for the prime minister’s post and was prevented from forming a government.

Last week’s court ruling also triggered further tensions between Move Forward and Piyabutr, who helped campaign for the party. Piyabutr accused Move Forward’s leadership of “doing nothing” to support Pannika. The remark triggered angry attacks from many party supporters, prompting Piyabutr to announce that he would stop making “straightforward” critical comments against Move Forward.

Life before entering politics

Born on January 28, 1988, in Bangkok, Pannika received a bachelor’s degree in political science (international relations) from Chulalongkorn University in 2010. She went on to obtain a master’s degree in global politics from the prestigious London School of Economics and Political Science. After returning to Thailand, she joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and completed an internship with the Department of South Asian, Middle East, and African Affairs.

Before entering politics in 2018, Pannika was known as a prominent news anchor at Voice TV, a television station co-founded by Panthongtae Shinawatra, the son of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

She worked as Voice TV’s international news desk editor and news anchor for more than six years, hosting political commentary and news analysis shows. She also covered several important overseas events, including the US presidential election in 2016, the Brexit referendum in the same year, and Indonesia’s presidential election in 2014.

After joining Future Forward shortly after its founding in March 2018, Pannika rose to political prominence while serving as the party’s spokesperson. She was described as a vocal critic of the Thai establishment and a champion of progressive politics.

But her university days eventually came back to haunt the rising politician. Years ago, she posted her old graduation photos on Facebook. In the photos, she is seen making gestures that critics called “inappropriate references” to HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej and HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

The controversial content remained publicly accessible on her Facebook page even after she was elected as an MP in March 2019. This attracted the attention of prolific petitioner Srisuwan Janya, who filed a complaint against Pannika with the National Anti-Corruption Commission in June 2019.

His petition led to the court case that resulted in her lifetime ban from politics.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk