Amnesty in Thailand

Thailand in recent days has begun to face up to the dilemma of amnesties for people on both sides of the political spectrum, going back to the generals who perpetrated the royalist coup in 2006 and encompassing those who were involved in the May 2010 confrontations that resulted in the deaths of 91 people, most of them protesters, in Bangkok.

Included is a plan ostensibly designed to eventually allow the fugitive-in-chief, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra back into the country without having to serve the two-year prison sentence for corruption that faced him before he fled in 2008. Although Thailand has famously begun a healing process that is said to be taking the country back to its historic predilection for compromise, it is fraught with peril, given the considerable hatred Thaksin has generated within the country, and it is unsure just how long it will take.

Despite his protestations, Thaksin is widely assumed to be running the country by twisting the controls remotely from his exile roost in Dubai through his sister, Yingluck, who headed the Pheu Thai Party that won a decisive victory in national elections in July. The party’s slogan was “Thaksin Thinks, Pheu Thai Acts,” which should have given a clue that he might be in charge. Some sources in Bangkok say the Red Shirt protesters of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, the UDD, are very much involved in formulating policy despite the fact that they were given relatively minor sub-cabinet positions in the Pheu Thai-led government.

Although he is widely credited with engineering the Pheu Thai victory, a coalition of powerful forces doesn’t want him back in the country at all, or at least unless he serves at least some prison time. Those forces include top leaders of the military who engineered the 2006 coup that removed him from power, the courts that convicted him of corruption in the sale of his Shin Corp assets to the Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek, the now-vanquished pro-royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy, the Yellow Shirts headed by mortal enemy Sondhi Limthongkul, and many others.

Reportedly shortly after the election Thaksin sent an emissary to see Sondhi, who controls one of Thailand’s major media empires, to sue for peace. Sondhi is said to be in considerable financial trouble, having played a major – and unsuccessful -- role in funding Yellow Shirts who brought chaos to Bangkok’s streets in attempting to oust previous Thaksin governments.

But, say sources close to Sondhi, the media mogul turned the emissary away. That would seem to be a contradictory decision, given that Thaksin’s control of the economy could make him a pauper after the former premier saved his empire in 2001. Sondhi was forced into bankruptcy in the wake of the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis. After Thaksin was elected prime minister in 2001, Sondhi’s banker became head of the state-owned Krung Thai Bank and delivered up more than Bt1 billion (US$32.08 million at present exchange rates) in “debt forgiveness,” which saved Sondhi from bankruptcy and led him to call Thaksin "the best prime minister our country has ever had." For reasons that are unclear, Sondhi later turned on Thaksin and has continued to criticize him in his publications.

The Yellow Shirts, however, appear to be split. The Democrats, who ruled the country until the election, are relatively quiescent, apparently willing to return to their longtime role as the major opposition in the Parliament. Sondhi has criticized the Democrats, saying they need to fight.

Could Thaksin’s possible return generate another coup? Probably not. Protests would probably take place, although not enough to cause the kind of chaos that ensued last year. There have been some harbingers. Thaksin’s former wife and children have been acquitted of tax evasion on appeal in the sale of the Shin Corp assets to Temasek, an indication that the country’s rather malleable courts know where the power is now.

Thaksin himself has been circling ever closer from his exile base in Dubai, first with a visit to Japan in late August which outraged many in Bangkok, who saw it as an attempt to return to the international stage. He insisted he isn’t involved with his sister’s government, saying he only gives occasional advice – sometimes not even every day. Then, in September, he showed up in Cambodia for a conference on regional Asian economics – two days after Yingluck had visited, although they didn’t meet for fear of stirring more outrage across the border in Thailand. Cambodian premier Hun Sen has throughout the Thaksin overseas odyssey delighted in tweaking the noses of the Thais, appointing Thaksin an economic advisor to the Cambodian government.

Yingluck during the election campaign was noncommittal about her brother’s return, suggesting that perhaps amnesties could be arranged for lots of people, including some of the military who ordered their troops to crack down brutally on protesters in May riots in Bangkok that took the lives of 92 people, most of them protesters.

Despite advice that he should stay out of the country to let passions cool, Thaksin appears to be seeking to rush the process. Tellingly, the Foreign Minister, Surapong Tovichakchaikul, told the media he was considering the return of Thaksin’s passport, saying the confiscation was politically motivated and that even a prison in the Bangkok jail can still own one.

“I see this as an attempt to whitewash Thaksin as a part of paving the way for his return,” a well-placed Thai source told Asia Sentinel.

The latest scenarios revolve around a law, ironically pushed through the Parliament by the Democrats, who were ousted from power by Pheu Thai, that grants mass pardons for those over the age of 60 whose jail sentence is less than three years. Because it’s a collective pardon, presumably everybody thinks nobody will notice that one of them is the most controversial figure in the country. The other possibility is that Thaksin could take advantage of the annual Royal Decree in which King Bhumibol Adulyadej once a year issues pardons to inmates.

The sticking point is that in order to earn a pardon, Thaksin would have to earn it by at least some jail time. Sen. Wanchai Somsiri, in a recent interview with The Nation of Bangkok, suggested that he “could sit at the police clubhouse for five or 10 minutes, and that would be fine as far as the law is concerned.

That is not likely to sit well with those who have spent months, perhaps years in jail to earn their pardons.

In the meantime, there have been moves to find a legal route to making sure that nobody gets prosecuted for the 2006 coup that brought down Thaksin in the first place. The coup leaders inserted clauses in the Constitution to make sure they wouldn’t be prosecuted in the event that the Red shirts came back to power. That particular amnesty probably will be extended to the military and political leaders who ordered the bloody crackdown on protesters in 2010 – and to the protesters themselves, who are accused of torching some 40 buildings in downtown Bangkok, although their supporters say the military torched the buildings to blame them.