BANGKOK – Thailand braced for mass protests as parliament debated a political amnesty that opponents fear will “whitewash” the past killing of unarmed demonstrators and allow ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra to return.
Critics of the controversial legislation warn that it could unleash a fresh bout of political turmoil in a country rocked by a series of rival demonstrations since royalist generals ousted Thaksin in 2006.
The opposition Democrat Party has called for a mass rally against the planned amnesty at a railway station in Bangkok on Thursday evening, predicting that thousands will attend.
The ruling Puea Thai Party of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra — Thaksin’s sister — has ordered all its lawmakers to support the bill, which would cover crimes related to political unrest since 2004.
A vote is expected in the coming days, although the opposition is demanding a delay.
“The bill will be a mechanism to solve conflicts. Asking to postpone it citing conflicts is not the right reason,” Puea Thai MP Chonlanan Srikaew told parliament.
Supporters of the amnesty say it will draw a line under years of turmoil culminating in mass pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” protests in 2010 that left dozens of civilians dead in a military crackdown.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has warned that a blanket amnesty would “allow officials and protest leaders who have blood on their hands to go unpunished”.
“By whitewashing past abuses, the government denies justice to victims and tells future abusers they have little to fear,” HRW Asia director Brad Adams said.
In 2010, mass rallies by the Red Shirts against the previous government descended into the kingdom’s worst civil violence in decades, with more than 90 people killed and nearly 1,900 wounded in street clashes and a military crackdown.
A series of earlier protests by their arch rivals, the royalist “Yellow Shirts”, helped to trigger the coup that toppled Thaksin.
The former telecoms tycoon is loved by many rural and poor Thais for his populist policies while in power, but his opponents accuse him of being corrupt, dictatorial and a threat to the monarchy.
He lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai to avoid prison for a corruption conviction — imposed in his absence in 2008 — that he contends was politically motivated.
Thaksin would be the “chief beneficiary” of the amnesty, said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand.
“If the amnesty is passed, if the Constitution Court does not oppose it and if the king endorses the amnesty law, then of course Thaksin will return to Thailand,” he added.
The opposition — which was in power at the time of the 2010 crackdown — has threatened to intensify its planned rally until the amnesty bill is withdrawn.
It has denounced a decision by the attorney general to prosecute its leader, former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, and his one-time deputy Suthep Thaugsuban on murder charges related to the 2010 crackdown as a ploy to pressure it to support the amnesty.
Abhisit said Thursday that he was ready to defend himself in court, where he is scheduled to appear with Suthep on December 12.
“All Thais should respect the law and the justice system. No one can avoid it or take action to grant themselves an amnesty,” Abhisit told reporters.
The Red Shirts and families of the victims have also decried the idea of an amnesty.
Phayaw Akkahad, the mother of a nurse who was gunned down in the grounds of a Buddhist temple while treating injured Red Shirts on May 19, said she wanted Puea Thai to carry out its election campaign pledge to find justice.
“But look at what is happening — soldiers who killed people have never gone to jail,” she told AFP.
“I sacrificed my daughter and 100 other people were also sacrificed. I want to ask Thaksin what has he sacrificed? This bill will bring more violence and might cause people to be killed again,” she said. – by Thanaporn PROMYAMYAI