Thai Senate to Stop Amnesty Bill to Quell Unrest: Southeast Asia

Thailand’s Senate is set to reject a proposed amnesty law for political offenses on Nov. 11 after weeklong street protests raised concerns its passage would reignite political violence.

Opposition from the public, universities and business groups convinced a majority of Thailand’s 149 senators to block the legislation, Senate Speaker Nikom Wairatpanij said at a media briefing in Bangkok yesterday. More than 32,000 people joined demonstrations in the capital and 17 other provinces on Nov. 4, according to police estimates, with the push for the amnesty law weighing on Thai stocks and the baht.

The legislative failure would be a setback for Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted as prime minister in a 2006 coup and has guided policy from abroad since his sister, Yingluck, won elections in 2011. Yingluck struggled to convince the public that the bill aimed to heal social divisions caused by the coup rather than help Thaksin return to Thailand and recover part of a fortune that was seized after he fled a jail term in 2008.

“I don’t want to see the amnesty law used as a political tool,” Yingluck said yesterday in a televised speech. “This government will work for the country’s benefit and will not use its majority to go against the people’s wishes.”

Parties linked to Thaksin have won the past five elections on support from rural areas, and Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party commands a majority in parliament.

Parliamentary Majority

“It was a major part of his strategy, using his party and majority vote in parliament,” Ora-Orn Poocharoen, an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, said of Thaksin. “Unfortunately, he hasn’t got buy-in from everybody, and even people in his party and the coalition party -- they’re shaking their heads saying why did we do this? Why did we stab ourselves when the government was actually doing quite well?”

The legislative push has hurt stocks and the baht amid concern it will spark fresh clashes in a country where past protests by Thaksin’s supporters and opponents have led to an airport seizure, business center blockages and arson attacks.

The benchmark SET Index jumped late yesterday to end 2 percent higher, the biggest gain in six weeks, and the baht reversed an earlier decline after senators briefed the media on plans to block the bill. The SET Index rose 1.2 percent to 1,431.79 as of 3:55 p.m. in Bangkok. The baht fell 0.2 percent to 31.300 per dollar.

Red Shirts

In its initial draft, the law would have freed members of the public charged over political violence since the 2006 coup. A parliamentary committee widened the draft to include soldiers and politicians who oversaw deadly crackdowns on protesters, and people charged on the basis of investigations by state agencies established after the coup.

The amendments angered Thaksin’s opponents, who claimed the law would whitewash crimes he committed while in power. Some members of a pro-Thaksin group known as the Red Shirts also criticized the bill for protecting opposition Democrat party leaders who ordered the army to use live ammunition to disperse protesters while in power in 2010.

The amnesty law wouldn’t apply to people charged for lese-majeste, which mandates jail sentences as long as 15 years for defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen, heir apparent or regent.

“If the bill fails, then Thaksin will have to recalculate his strategy,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University. “The next step is to heal the rift that he has created among the Red Shirts,” he said. “He wants to come home, he wants his money back.”

Thaksin’s Fortune

Yingluck said the bill wouldn’t apply to corruption cases, and denied it would let Thaksin recover 46.4 billion baht ($1.48 billion) seized by the courts in 2010. Thaksin fled abuse of power charges that stemmed from a military-appointed panel for helping his wife buy land from the government.

Thaksin, in a statement distributed today by his legal adviser Noppadon Pattama, said the purpose of the amnesty bill was to restore a sense of fairness after the coup, which “clearly violated the rule of law and tore up the constitution.”

Thaksin said his opponents were spreading “distorted information” that an amnesty would allow him to reclaim the seized funds. “I will accept the pain, hoping the nation will move forward,” he said, without specifically ruling out a return to the country.

Street Protests

Lawmakers from the Democrat party led marches through Bangkok’s streets on Nov. 4, paralyzing traffic in the Silom business district and near the Grand Palace, one of Thailand’s top tourist attractions. At least 32,000 people joined protests in Bangkok and 17 other provinces, police spokesman Piya Uthayo said, while thousands of university students and staff took part in a separate rally in central Bangkok yesterday.

A rejection by the Senate next week would see the bill returned to the lower house for as long as 180 days. The government will accept the Senate’s decision, Yingluck said.

The Democrat party pledged to continue its occupation of Bangkok’s Democracy Monument until the government scraps all efforts at passing amnesty legislation, party leader and former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said late yesterday.

“This amnesty bill has been carefully drafted by the Pheu Thai party to help Thaksin,” Abhisit said in a speech to supporters at Democracy Monument. “So we cannot trust their words until they withdraw this law from the parliament.”

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