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Thai amnesty bill stirs a new round of unrest

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

Special To The Japan Times

Street protests have in the past weeks revisited Bangkok, stirring up fear that all sides of the political divides could turn violent in order to achieve their different objectives. Thailand’s political crisis has shown no sign of subsiding. Since the military coup of 2006 ousting the elected government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Thai politics has been colored by relentless conflicts that seem to have centered solely upon Thaksin and his political domination.

Recently, the Thaksin-backed government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s youngest sister, abruptly pushed the troubled amnesty bill through Parliament. The manner in which the bill was quickly approved by the parliamentarians, mostly from the ruling Pheu Thai Party, was rather odd. Given the controversial nature of the bill, the Thai Lower House successfully endorsed it with little struggle. The bill was then passed to the Senate for its endorsement. But it was rejected by the Senate due to public pressure. Now, the government has up to 180 days to resubmit its bill. It is however unlikely that the government will try to do it again.

Why is it so controversial? The Yingluck government decided to amend the final draft of the amnesty law that would prevent prosecutions of those responsible for ordering and killing Thai protesters in May 2010, supposedly in exchange for the amnesty given to Thaksin for his corrupt charges.

This blanket amnesty would also set free those who staged the unlawful coup of 2006, as well as ordinary political prisoners who were charged supposedly because of their wrongdoings. But the controversial bill leaves out prisoners charged with lese-majeste — a serious crime in Thailand involving insults against Thai monarchy.

The amnesty bill had since invited condemnation, rejection and now confrontation. Different political factions have strongly opposed the bill based on their own political interests and ideologies. Obviously, hard-core fans in the red-shirt camp continue to support Thaksin, Pheu Thai Party and Yingluck without questioning that the bill went against their own political commandment of wanting the government to bring those who killed their fellow protesters to justice in the first place.

For other, more “progressive,” red shirts, the anger was fueled due to the understanding that the Pheu Thai’s game plan was only designed to benefit Thaksin, more than anything else. Thaksin has been yearning to go back home as a free man, with his reputation being restored and his money returned. In other words, Thaksin’s homecoming will be achieved over the dead bodies of his own supporters.

But the underlining point argued by the progressive red shirts is the reality in which this amnesty bill will undoubtedly further deepen the culture of impunity in Thailand. Thailand’s political violence has periodically occurred throughout the country’s modern history, such as the massacre of Thammasat University students in 1973 and 1976, the fatal crackdowns on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1992 and the killings of the red shirts in May 2010. Should the amnesty bill be enacted in the future, it would dangerously set a new standard in Thai politics whereby the state’s violence against its people will be pardoned.

At the other end of the political spectrum, the anti-Thaksin forces, now no longer confined within the yellow-shirt movement but engaging more of Bangkok’s middle class, have embarked on making their own discourse on the amnesty.

To them, the amnesty represents the selfish interest of the Shinawatra family; and thus the focus of their campaign has been the riddance of Thaksin, who represents a bad example of corrupt politician. Without recognizing that this same amnesty will set free those responsible for the killing of the people, the anti-Thaksin forces have to a great extent been successful in obscuring the issue of impunity as if Thailand had never experienced the state’s violent crackdowns in 2010.

Their move is understandable. Behind the anti-Thaksin forces today were those associated with the opposition Democrat Party, whose leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, served as prime minster during the turbulent years from 2008-2011 when the fatal crackdowns took place. In many ways, the amnesty bill initiated by the Pheu Thai Party offered the Democrat Party a platform to discredit Thaksin for his attempt to whitewash himself. More importantly, it also allowed Abhisit to distort the Thai political past; he has continued to claim that the state’s crackdowns on demonstrators were necessary because the latter violated the rule of law. In other words, his action was within the legal scope.

What is most regrettable is that amid intensifying political wrangling between different groups of political elite, political prisoners will continue to be held hostage by individual interests of the various political actors. As of now, it seems that the amnesty bill will eventually be dismissed. The public has put too much pressure on the government. The possibility of political violence will compel the Yingluck government to shelve the bill. In this case, the dream of seeing political prisoners in Thailand being emancipated is slim.

Even after the plan to push the amnesty bill had fizzled out, the anti-government forces continue their protests; and this time it could not be more clear that the real objective is to overthrow the Yingluck administration. Leading members of Parliament from the opposition party, such as Suthep Tuangsuban, former deputy prime minister in the Abhisit Vejjajiva government who has also been accused of involving in the massacre in May 2010, are now leading street protests.

Out of desperation, they are now playing politics outside the parliamentary system and hoping to mobilize mass support. There is a chance that the prime minister could opt for parliament dissolution and call for a fresh election to renew its legitimacy, also as a way to heal the damage caused by the amnesty bill.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.