Thousands crowded onto the streets of Bangkok on Thursday to protest the passing of an amnesty bill that wipes away all charges relating to political violence since 2004.
Fervent demonstrators in V for Vendetta masks and sweat-drenched tees braved the muggy heat along with old ladies clutching hand fans. “There’s nothing to lose,” says Jintana, a 59-year-old employee of an export firm, who was in a crowd jammed into a long, narrow field by the city’s Samsen railway station. “We will be suppressed anyhow, so we fight until the last breath.”
Yellow Shirt sympathizers like Jintana are opposed to the legislation because it would quash the corruption conviction of exiled former Thai Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra — a divisive figure, whose ousting in a military coup in 2006 sparked years of street rallies, mass sieges and sporadic bloodletting. “We hate corrupt government and we hate Thaksin Shinawatra,” explains another 40-year-old protester called Amy.
However, those on the other side of Thailand’s color-coded political divide — the Red Shirts — are also vehemently opposed, but for very different reasons. They want justice for comrades killed in the 2010 crackdown. The prospect of general amnesty has them fearing that justice will never be served.
Despite this widespread opposition, at around 4 a.m. on Friday morning the amnesty bill was passed by the Thai legislature with 310 votes to zero with four abstentions.
Thai politics has long been characterized by shows of popular force; mass Yellow Shirt protests led to the 2006 coup, and a Red Shirt rally that swarmed over central Bangkok in 2010 was violently crushed with more than 80 civilians killed and around 2,000 injured. Tanks rolled into popular shopping districts of the Thai capital and snipers, widely assumed to be backed by the military, picked off victims from rooftops amid carnage a world away from the Land of Smiles portrayed on popular tourist brochures.
But now these grassroots political groups have formed an unholy alliance against the amnesty bill. The Yellow Shirts — generally urban royalists and nationalists joined under the banner of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) — fear the return of their nemesis Thaksin. The Red Shirts — rural poor known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) — want those responsible for the 2010 bloodshed to be held accountable.
In 2011, Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra was elected Prime Minister as head of the Pheu Thai Party largely on the back of huge Red Shirt support. Calls for restitution for the victims of 2010 — the military incursion was ostensibly ordered by then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of the PAD-backed Democrat Party — reverberated throughout the UDD rank and file. “They want justice for the violence that claimed their loved ones,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
The amnesty bill seems to be the final nail in the coffin for these hopes. Abhisit and his then Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban have been charged with murder but will not face trial, and the UDD is incensed that Pheu Thai is “climbing over the bodies of the Red Shirts so Thaksin can come home,” says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.
UDD leaders spat venom at their former Pheu Thai brothers in arms in parliament as the vote approached. Prasang Monkonsiri, a left-leaning Red Shirt and former editor of the Voice of Taksin magazine, labeled Pheu Thai lawmakers in favor of the amnesty bill as “traitors” and “whores” who will develop “the faces of leprous dogs” owing to the “hundred ghosts of people you led to their deaths.”
Even within Pheu Thai, four MPs suffered a crisis of conscience and abstained from the amnesty vote, including Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives Nattawut Saikua. “This is a turning point for the Red Shirts,” says Thitinan. After ousting the Democrat Party at the ballot box, an apparent chasm now divides the UDD and Pheu Thai. “Down the line, it will make it more difficult to reconcile Thailand.”
Adding fuel to the fire, Red Shirt political prisoners serving time on lése majestè grounds were conspicuously left out of the amnesty bill. Otherwise known as article 112, lése majestè is an antiquated law prohibiting any remarks deemed offensive to the Thai royal family, but critics argue its mandate has been widened to curb general dissent.
So while Pheu Thai widened the amnesty bill to include Thaksin and those soldiers who gunned down unarmed Red Shirts in the street, “it has not seen fit to include the victims alongside the perpetrators: those imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their political beliefs,” says Benjamin Zawacki, senior legal adviser for Southeast Asia at the International Commission of Jurists.
Pavin warns the amnesty bill “deepens the culture of impunity in Thailand.” Over the past century, the nation has witnessed several bloody coups and associated strife, but few individuals or groups have been held accountable. “It could set a new standard in Thai politics that the state can kill people and get away with it again in the future.”
Analysts say Pheu Thai probably placed wiping Thaksin’s criminal record above all else from the beginning. “I don’t think it’s a last-minute thing,” says Pavin, “I think everything has been well calculated.” Zawacki agrees: “An objective analysis shows that [Thaksin’s return] is the only real benefit the [Red Shirts] stand to gain.”
Despite the promise of amnesty, Thaksin is unlikely jump on a plane if popular support is dwindling. “Thaksin is very shrewd,” adds Thitinan. “He’s testing the water to see how much he can get away with.” Powerful forces including the influential Privy Council and royal family have long been a thorn in the media mogul’s side, but there are signs this may be waning. Nevertheless, “If he thinks it’s not the right time then he’ll stay away and it will be back to business as usual.”
There are still several stages before the amnesty bill becomes law. First it needs to be passed by Senate, and then ratified by the King. The Democrat Party — whose MPs walked out of Friday’s vote en masse — may even challenge it at the Constitutional Court.
While the long-term consequences might threaten Pheu Thai’s dominance at the ballot box, the short-term impact could be fresh unrest. “Political violence could come back to Bangkok any time soon,” says Pavin, adding an extra note of caution that “this time around anyone could be the enemy” because of the blurring of traditional allegiances.
Thitinan admits the “likelihood for confrontation has risen dramatically” as Thaksin’s opponents “will come out to create conditions of ungovernability — just chaos in the street.” But according to Zawacki, the government will likely invoke the Internal Security Act to ensure the protests are either contained or paid for with a heavy legal price.
— With reporting from Dan Kedmey / Bangkok