Thai Parliament Passes Amnesty Bill

After more than two years of ducking and weaving, Thailand’s ruling Pheu Thai Party has defied public outrage to push through a controversial bill granting blanket amnesty to participants on both sides of the barricades in bloody riots that took place in Bangkok in 2010 – and possibly to exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as well.

After an 18-hour marathon session ending at 4.20 am, parliament pushed the measure through the second and third reading with 310 votes, while 4 MPs abstained: the red shirt leaders Natthawut Saikaur and Weng Tojirakarn, original bill sponsor Worachai Hema and Khattiya Kattipol, and the daughter of Maj Gen Khattiya The bill is expected to bring thousands of protesters to the streets because of the amnesty to Thaksin, who has been in exile since 2008 when he refused to come home after being convicted in a Thai court of abuse of power. It is due for its final reading on Saturday. Sporadic protests have already taken place, with another scheduled for tonight and another major one on Saturday.

““This will set free virtually everyone, including (former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva) and Thaksin,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a political analyst and regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.

While Pheu Thai holds a 252-seat majority in the 500 member House of Representatives and heads a strong governing coalition of six other parties that gave it a comfortable majority to push the bill through. Its real opposition is in the streets. That is because, as a billionaire businessman-turned-politician, Thaksin remains a deeply polarizing figure, seven years after he was driven from the premiership by a royalist coup. Even if the amnesty goes through, it is doubtful that Thaksin could come home without facing outraged protesters. It seems more likely that he would stay overseas until the temperature cools somewhat, political observers said.

Thailand has remained relatively calm over the past three years since the May 2010 onslaught by the military against Red Shirt protesters aligned with Thaksin who occupied the center of Bangkok for more than two months. The army’s attack ended with the deaths of 90 people, most of them protesters against the then-Democrat Party-led government headed by Abhisit Vejjajiva. A major shopping center in the middle of Bangkok was destroyed, with the army blaming protesters for torching it and the protesters saying army tear gas grenades had caused the fires.

The Pheu Thai Party, headed by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, has been maneuvering to present an amnesty bill that would grant Thaksin immunity from prosecution virtually ever since the party came to power in the 2011 elections. However, it has been thwarted from doing so by lingering public outrage at Thaksin, who faced wide-ranging charges of corruption, authoritarianism and muzzling the press when he was booted out. His so-called war on drugs was criticized for turning police loose to murder hundreds of people who were believed to have had nothing to do with either peddling or taking drugs.

After his conviction, Thaksin first applied for asylum in the UK but was refused. After moving from country to country, he has in effect run the government by remote control from his perch in Dubai. Many of Yingluck’s top advisors and officials were previously in Thaksin’s government.

The bill was originally written to benefit only those involved in protests since the 2006 coup that drove Thaksin from power, not officials involved in the violent clashes that rocked Bangkok almost since the coup as royalists under the banner of the Alliance to Defend Democracy – the Yellow Shirts – clashed with the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship – the Red Shirts, mostly Thaksin’s rural supporters.

On Monday, the Attorney-General's Office delivered a long-anticipated indictment of Abhisit, now opposition leader, and his deputy, Suthep Thaugsuban, for "causing others to commit murders" when he ordered the military to put an end to the 2010 occupation. Many considered the indictment of the two Democratic Party leaders to be a Pheu Thai Party ploy to spike their party’s guns by giving them amnesty at the same time it would be granted to Thaksin. However, Democrat Party outrage has continued. As the bill was retroactively amended, amnesty is extended to “persons accused of wrongdoing by a group of people or an organization set up after the military coup of September 19, 2006.”

That would get the forces of Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha off the hook as well for the violent suppression of the 2010 protest. Despite the amnesty granted to Abhisit and Suthep, the Democrats appear ready to take to the streets, first with a mass rally this evening. However, the party, tarred by its support of the military action in 2010, remains weakened and without a clear strategy beyond attempting to rally its urban base. Regular rallies in recent months have not drawn substantial crowds.

The specter of a Thaksin return, however, could well produce a revived coalition, including the remnants of the Yellow Shirts headed by publisher Sondhi Limthongkul, who had drifted into irrelevance since the national elections that brought Yingluck and Pheu Thai to power. It is unclear at this point, however, if they can amass enough protest to force Yingluck and her forces to withdraw the bill.