Bangkok Protests May Escalate as Thai Government Pushes Amnesty

Thailand’s biggest opposition party said as many as 50,000 people joined protests yesterday to oppose an amnesty law for political offenses, and predicted numbers will swell today after a contentious parliamentary vote.

The bill was passed by the lower house in a session that ended about 4:30 a.m. today. Lawmakers from the opposition Democrat party staged a walkout, saying they weren’t given an opportunity to debate its most controversial sections.

“We expect to attract more people tonight because what happened in parliament was so abnormal,” Sathit Wongnongtoei, a Democrat member of parliament, said by phone, adding that 40,000 to 50,000 people attended a rally organized by the party near Bangkok’s Samsen train station overnight. “They voted to support the bill without listening to our protests.”

The government says the bill will heal political divisions caused by a military coup in 2006 that ousted then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the brother of current leader Yingluck Shinawatra, who commands a majority in parliament. Some opponents say the law is designed to whitewash crimes Thaksin committed while in office, and others oppose the legislation because it would protect politicians who ordered a deadly crackdown on pro-Thaksin demonstrators in 2010.

Thai police estimated about 8,000 people attended the rally last night, well below Democrat party estimates, and previous demonstrations by groups opposed to government efforts to change the post-coup constitution have failed to attract widespread support.

Still, “there are signs that the situation will escalate, and if the political situation turns violent it will affect the economy significantly,” said Somprawin Manprasert, deputy dean of the economics faculty at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. A return of violent clashes could curb quarterly economic growth by as much as half a percentage point, he said in an interview.

Export Slowdown

The baht weakened 0.2 percent to 31.195 per dollar at 3:22 p.m. local time, extending this week’s retreat to 0.6 percent. The benchmark SET Index of stocks declined 1 percent, poised for its lowest close since Oct. 7.

Yingluck’s administration is struggling to spur an economy that’s facing slowing demand for its electronics, seafood and rubber. The central bank last week pared its estimate for gross domestic product growth this year to 3.7 percent, from a July projection of 4.2 percent, and efforts to bolster growth with $64 billion of state spending on infrastructure have stalled.

Parties linked to Thaksin have won the past five elections on support from rural areas, including the 2011 vote that brought his sister to power. Demonstrations by Thaksin’s supporters and opponents since 2006 have led to an airport seizure, business center blockages and arson attacks in Bangkok.

Red Shirts

The amnesty bill has drawn critics on both sides of the country’s ideological divide, including some members of the Red Shirts, a pro-Thaksin group of mostly rural voters who argue that government officials who ordered a bloody crackdown in 2010 shouldn’t escape prosecution.

Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, now an opposition leader who faces murder charges for authorizing soldiers to use weapons during the 2010 unrest, has rallied supporters to protest the legislation, even though he himself would benefit from the amnesty.

Abhisit in August said the bill will undermine the judiciary by freeing people who were convicted of serious criminal acts, and may lead to a pardon for Thaksin, who fled a two-year jail sentence for graft in 2008 and has lived in self-imposed exile overseas. His Democrat party separately opposed changes to an article in the constitution that gave an amnesty to generals for staging the 2006 coup against Thaksin.

‘Shameful Action’

The Democrat party said today the amnesty bill will probably be proposed to the Senate on Nov. 4 and pass by Nov. 26. It will then ask the Constitutional Court to decide whether it breaches the charter, said Thavorn Senniam, an opposition member of parliament.

“This is not the end,” said Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a political science lecturer at Thammasat University in Bangkok. “It’s clear that this draft bill is totally against the rule of law, freeing those convicts. It’s against the constitution.”

Thousands more will join the protest today, Democrat spokesman Chavanond Intarakomalyasut said.

“This is a shameful action for parliament and it’s like the Thai people got slapped by Yingluck and trampled by Thaksin,” Chavanond said.

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