Opposition boycott as Thailand amnesty bill passes parliament

Opposition claims measure will whitewash divisive ex-prime minister Thaksin's crimes and end his exile; party vows to do all it can to block it

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 November, 2013, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 November, 2013, 3:21am

Thailand's parliament yesterday moved a step closer to granting amnesty to people involved in a political conflict that has divided the country for almost a decade, prompting thousands to protest in the streets and renewing fears of violence.

Critics fear that the bill will allow the polarising former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to return from self-imposed exile. He fled Thailand in 2008 to escape corruption charges.

The 500-member House of Representatives passed the bill after 19 hours of acrimonious debate, which culminated in the entire opposition walking out of the chamber and refusing to vote. The bill was then passed with the 310 members from the pro-Thaksin ruling coalition left in the house voting for it and no votes against. It must now be approved by the Senate to become law.

The opposition, led by the Democrat Party, said the bill would whitewash crimes by Thaksin, whose sister Yingluck Shinawatra is prime minister.

Thaksin was hugely popular and carried large majorities in winning office, especially from rural voters who gained from his populist policies. But he remains a highly divisive figure seven years after being ousted by a military coup over allegations of corruption and disrespect for Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Opposition to his return arouses fierce passions that has sometimes led to violence.

Anticipating possible unrest as the bill came up for debate, the interior minister earlier this week ordered provincial governors to be on alert for violent protests or disruptions to public utilities.

Before dawn yesterday, more than 5,000 opposition Democrat Party supporters opposed to the amnesty plan rallied outside their headquarters. The party's parliamentarians said they would file a complaint to the Constitutional Court to block the legislation, and more protests were expected.

"We will fight against this bill through every channel allowed under the constitution. We will keep protesting until the amnesty bill is struck down. And if necessary, we might have to call for the government to step down," Thaworn Senniam, a Democrat MP, said yesterday.

The original draft of the bill did not extend amnesty to the leaders of either the pro-Thaksin "red shirts" or the anti-Thaksin "yellow shirt" groups, but a committee vote last month changed the bill to include them.

Since then, the legislation has been criticised by varied opponents, including international rights organisations, the anti-Thaksin camps and even the progressive red-shirt movements who oppose immunity for former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his then-deputy Suthep Thaugsuban for their alleged involvement in a 2010 crackdown on pro-Thaksin protests. In those, 90 people were killed and nearly 1,900 wounded in the military crackdown.

Abhisit and Suthep, now opposition Democrat legislators, on Thursday reported to public prosecutors to acknowledge charges of murder for ordering the crackdown. Abhisit earlier said he opposed the amnesty bill and would fight the charges in court to prove his innocence.

The Democrat Party accused Thaksin of masterminding the amnesty bill to free himself from serving a two-year jail term in a corruption case.

Thaksin, who made a fortune in the Thai telecom sector, lives in Dubai to avoid the prison term imposed in his absence in 2008. He contends that the jail term, which is linked to the purchase of state-owned land by his wife, was politically motivated.

In 2010 a court also seized US$1.4 billion of Thaksin family assets for abuse of power after he was targeted by an anti-corruption panel appointed by the post-coup junta to investigate him.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse