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Hope for amnesty bill as Thai protests return

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

Special To The Japan Times

The Thai political temperature has been rising. Since the beginning of this month, protests have returned to the streets of Bangkok.

The last time mass demonstrations took control of Bangkok was in May 2010. That event ended tragically with the military, reportedly at the order of the then government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, killing almost 100 red-shirt members. And until now, nobody has been prosecuted for this terrible crime committed against the people.

Anti-government groups, initially led by the opposition Democrat Party, have protested against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for her attempt to pass the controversial amnesty bill through Parliament.

Observers fear that the ongoing protests could spiral into a new round of violent confrontation. The amnesty bill is currently debated in the Thai Parliament.

Worachai Hema, a member of Pheu Thai Party, drew up a draft for amnesty, which focuses mainly on the granting of amnesty to those involved in political violence since 2006 — the year that witnessed the military coup against the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra.

However, as Worachai has argued, the amnesty bill will not cover core members of the protesters and, more importantly, those who were behind the killings of the demonstrators.

Under this specific amnesty, it is likely that all political prisoners — most are members of the red shirts — will be released. They were previously arrested in cases related to the burning of Central World, a department store located in central Bangkok, and other arson attacks against the state’s properties throughout the kingdom, in retaliation against the Abhisit government at the time.

Also accordingly to this bill, members of the yellow shirts, who seized the Suvaranabhumi International Airport during the pro-Thaksin Somchai Wongsawat government in late 2008, will be set free. The logic behind such an amnesty bill is to press the “reset button” so that Thai politics could restart on a clean sheet.

But such practice of whitewashing has failed to impress some relatives of those killed in the hands of the state. They believe that, with the amnesty bill, ways could be paved for the military to walk free from its wrongdoings in the brutal crackdowns against the red shirts.

The relatives are not alone in voicing their concern.

Prior to the opening of the parliamentary session, anti-government groups, which consist of hyper-royalists, anti-Thaksin figures as well as key members of Democrat Party, wanted to disrupt the parliamentary debate by mobilizing like-minded individuals to boycott the government’s amnesty bill.

Former prime ministers from the Democrat Party — Abhisit and Chuan Leekpai, led the street protest while accusing Yingluck of her dubious effort in endorsing the amnesty bill in order to bring her brother, Thaksin, back to Thailand as a free man.

Thaksin has been accused and sentenced to two year imprisonment in absentia for the conflict of interests. Until today, Thaksin has maintained his innocence, claiming that the charge brought against him was politically motivated.

Yet, the Democrat Party has continued to play a dangerous political game for ultimately the removal of the Yingluck government from power. In this process, not only has the Democrat Party criticized the amnesty bill as a plot to whitewash Thaksin, it has also exploited the monarchy, seen in the usage of royal symbols during the anti-government protests.

The misperception of the amnesty bill has not been adopted solely by different political factions in Thailand. Even credible international media, like the BBC, has continued to portray the current political crisis in Thailand as a collision between the royalist establishment and Thaksin.

Indeed, some of the media reports tend to simplify the Thai situation, and blaming Thaksin of being a source of the conflict seems to be an accepted formula.

Yet, such analysis will only obscure the deeply rooted Thai crisis which has gone far beyond Thaksin.

The relatives of those who lost their lives, in response to the Pheu Thai’s version of amnesty, sketched their own amnesty which concentrates on the prosecution against the state authorities, be they leaders of the government such as Abhisit and his deputy Suthep Thaugsuban, or the army. But this will be an uphill task.

A culture of impunity has been profoundly entrenched in Thailand. Through several tumultuous periods in Thai history in which lives of ordinary citizens were sacrificed, none has been successfully brought to justice.

Recently, even after the Department of Special Investigation launched its verdict that six Thais seeking shelter in the no-fire zone at Pratumwanaram Temple during the crackdown were killed by snipers who shot them from the direction of the sky train that runs in front of the temple, both Abhisit and the army chief, Prayuth Chanocha, strongly denied their responsibility.

For the relatives, reconciliation will not take place until justice is returned to those killed. Before Thailand can move ahead, it has to look back to the recent past.

But the government has its own reason too in pushing for the amnesty bill this time. Officially this could be a part of the reconciliation process. Beautiful words, such as let’s forgive and forget, are heard repeatedly.

Yet, unofficially, many critics argue that the government is too keen to regain political trust from its red-shirt supporters, after Yingluck was criticized for being too compromising in the political game for her own survival.

Signs have loomed large in the past weeks that insinuate an increasingly uncertain political climate. The Thai king and queen left Siriraj Hospital on Aug. 1 and are now residing at their seaside residence at Hua Hin.

Some Thais claimed to have witnessed unusual movements of military tanks from the country to Bangkok. Could this be a sign of an imminent coup?

In this fragile situation, the government finds its need to regain a firm support from the people. And the amnesty bill could just do the job.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.