Thai lawmakers likely to dismiss amnesty bill following mass protest

Thousands protested a measure they say will bring former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from self-imposed exile

A protester wears a chain with many amulets as he joins others in a march towards central Bangkok on Nov. 4, 2013.

Thai politicians appear set to dismiss a controversial amnesty bill after thousands of protesters took to the streets to oppose the measure, which could have seen the return of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from overseas exile.

More than 5,000 people blew whistles and temporarily halted traffic in Bangkok's financial district of Silom at lunchtime Monday to protest the proposed legislation, which was approved by the lower house of Parliament on Friday.

About 15,000 others joined a peaceful march by the opposition Democrat Party through another part of the city, police said. The party had staged a demonstration — what some local media are calling an "occupation" of prominent sites around the capital — that has drawn thousands of supporters since Thursday. Protesters say the demonstrations will continue until an amnesty bill making its way through the Thai legislature is defeated.

On Tuesday, Thai media suggested that the demonstrators could be successful in getting the bill kicked out. Both the Bangkok Post and the Nation — the two leading newspapers in Thailand — quoted senators as suggesting that most members of the upper house were inclined to vote down the amnesty measure.

The bill would grant amnesty to those involved in the sometimes-violent political conflict that has sharply divided the country for almost a decade.

The Democrat Party says the ruling party-proposed legislation is intended to whitewash Thaksin's alleged crimes, including the killing of unarmed protesters, and allow his return.

"We will keep on fighting against the amnesty bill and pursue those who are corrupt to the fullest, until the bill is doomed and canceled," said Democrat Party lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban, who led the march.

The lawmakers "didn't listen to the voice of the people. Just because they have power in Parliament, they thought they could make anything happen," said 30-year-old protester Awat Utchawong. "We have to come out to make the people's voice louder."

After being overthrown in a 2006 military coup, Thaksin fled into exile in 2008 to avoid serving a two-year prison sentence on a corruption conviction.

Thaksin, whose sister Yingluck Shinawatra is now prime minister, won large electoral majorities, especially from rural voters who benefited from his populist policies. But he remains highly polarizing seven years after being ousted over allegations of corruption and disrespect for King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Debate over his return arouses fierce passions that sometimes have erupted into violence.

More than 90 people were killed in 2010 during a crackdown by a Democrat-led government on rallies by pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts" in the heart of Bangkok.

The amnesty bill must be approved by the Senate and then be formally endorsed by the king before becoming law. Senators have 60 days to vote on the legislation.

The Democrats say they will also seek a ruling by the Constitutional Court on the bill's legality.

The original draft of the bill, approved in principle by the lower house in August, did not extend amnesty to the leaders of the pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin groups, but a House committee in mid-October changed the bill to include them.

The constitution stipulates the committee can "add new articles, deduct or amend the existing articles, as long as they do not contradict the principles of the bill."

Since its amendment, the legislation has been criticized by various groups, including international rights organizations, critics of Thaksin and members of the Red Shirt movement who oppose immunity for those involved in the 2010 crackdown such as former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his then-deputy, Suthep.

Human Rights Watch has said a blanket amnesty would allow officials and protest leaders to go unpunished for alleged abuses.

As well as pardoning people involved in political protests since 2004, the amnesty would also cover those accused of crimes by organizations set up after the 2006 coup, according to a copy of the bill seen by AFP.

Thaksin, the former owner of Manchester City football club, lives in Dubai to avoid prison for a corruption conviction imposed in his absence in 2008. He contends that the jail term was politically motivated.

The bill is expected to be submitted to the Senate on Nov. 11.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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