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Pressure Builds in Thailand over Proposed Amnesty Bill

  • Ron Corben

FILE - An anti-government protester wearing a mask painted in the colors of the Thai national flag looks on as riot police officers stand guard outside the parliament in Bangkok, Aug. 7, 2013.

FILE - An anti-government protester wearing a mask painted in the colors of the Thai national flag looks on as riot police officers stand guard outside the parliament in Bangkok, Aug. 7, 2013.

Regular street protests have returned to downtown Bangkok as thousands rallied against a controversial blanket amnesty bill for crimes connected to years of political turmoil. The measure could also clear the way for the return of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been living in self imposed exile since 2008. However, even some former Thaksin supporters say the bill goes too far.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra tried to defuse tensions on Tuesday by pledging her government would follow whatever decision the Thai Senate makes on the bill after it passed the House of Representatives late Friday night. However, she also expressed support for the measure, saying that it will help fulfill her party's goal of bringing political reconciliation to Thailand.

Opponents say the bill goes too far by granting amnesty for too many crimes, especially corruption-related offenses by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother.

Protests led by the opposition Democrat Party have been joined by business groups, universities and civil organizations in opposing the measure.

Jurin Laksanavisit, a member of the Democrat Party's parliamentary wing, welcomed the growing numbers turning out at rallies.

"We try hard, we are trying hard. So many people here and we hope to do our duty best," said Jurin.

The bill's initial version had bipartisan parliamentary support and was aimed at pardoning low key protestors and others associated with protests and acts of violence dating back from 2004 until August 2013.

However, the later draft that was passed by the lower house of parliament on Friday includes amnesty for protest organizers and government leaders, such as Thaksin.

For many family members of victims killed in the violence, the bill means they will never get justice for the death of loved ones.

That has drawn opposition from members of the pro-Thaksin Red Shirt movement, who have called for greater accountability in the deaths of protestors in 2010.

One protestor, Khun Boon, says his concern is that the legislation will undermine the rule of law in Thailand.

"We want to show to the government that we don't want this amnesty bill. The process of this bill is not quite correct. We are concerned about the rule of law. The rule of law will be destroyed completely if this bill is finally passed," said Boon.

Other protesters are motivated by the push to prevent former prime minister Thaksin from evading justice for corruption linked to his time in office and returning to Thailand.

Protester Goy Putachartyrajakul pointed out that Thaksin appears to be the main beneficiary of the amnesty.

"I have to decide to show up [and protest] because this situation is more than just shooting or corruption, its Thaksin Shinawatra - he doesn't deserve to come back home there is not home for him [here] anymore," said Goy.

The Yingluck government has been credited with overseeing a period of political stability since coming to office in 2011, but Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, feels the amnesty bill and the strong opposition it has provoked in recent days are a challenge for her administration.

"The amnesty gambit has undermined Thaksin and destabilized the Yingluck government. It makes Thaksin more distant to return to Thailand than ever. It will be more difficult for him now despite the legality of the amnesty, even if it passes, even if it becomes law. In practice, he would have a very difficult time in Thailand functionally because he would have many enemies," said Thitinan.

However, Thitinan believes Thaksin and his political allies may still hold the political upper hand as he remains popular in rural areas. Some suspect his party could call for early polls in 2014 and strengthen its standing in parliament.

The amnesty bill heads to the Upper House of the Senate next week, where its fate remains unclear. The Democrat Party has said that if the Senate accepts the bill, it will challenge the amnesty's legality in the Constitutional Court.

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