BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's parliament on Friday moved a step closer to granting amnesty to people involved in a wrenching political conflict that has divided the country for almost a decade, prompting thousands to protest in the streets and renewing fears of violence.
The 500-member House of Representatives passed the bill after 19 hours of acrimonious debate, which culminated with the entire opposition walking out of the chamber and refusing to vote. The bill was then passed with the 310 lawmakers from the ruling coalition left in the house voting for it and no votes against. It must now be approved by the Senate to become law.
The opposition, led by the Democrat Party, says the bill would whitewash the crimes of self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is closely allied to the ruling party. They say the bill is an underhand attempt by the government to pave the way for his return to Thailand, which he fled in 2008 to escape corruption charges.
Thaksin, whose sister Yingluck Shinawatra is now prime minister, garnered large majorities in winning office, especially from rural voters who gained from his populist policies. But he remains a highly polarizing seven years after being ousted by a military coup over allegations of corruption and disrespect for Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Opposition to his return arouses fierce passions that sometimes have erupted into violence.
Anticipating possible unrest as lawmakers readied to debate the bill, Thailand's interior minister earlier this week ordered provincial governors to be on alert for violent protests or disruptions to public utilities.
Before dawn Friday, more than 5,000 opposition Democrat Party supporters opposed to the amnesty plan rallied outside their headquarters. The party's lawmakers said they would file a complaint to the Constitutional Court to block the legislation, and more protests were expected later Friday.
"We will fight against this bill through every channel allowed under the constitution. We will keep protesting until the amnesty bill is struck down. And if necessary, we might have to call for the government to step down," Thaworn Senniam, a Democrat MP, said on Friday.
The original draft of the bill did not extend amnesty to the leaders of both the pro-Thaksin Red Shirt protests and the anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirt groups, but a House committee vote in mid-October changed the bill to include them.
Since then, the legislation has been criticized by varied opponents, including international rights organizations, the anti-Thaksin camps and even the progressive Red Shirt movements who oppose immunity for former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his then-deputy Suthep Thaugsuban for their alleged involvement in the 2010 crackdown.
Abhisit and Suthep, currently opposition Democrat lawmakers, on Thursday reported to public prosecutors to acknowledge the charges of murder for ordering the crackdown. Abhisit earlier said he opposed the amnesty bill and would fight the charges in court to prove his innocence.
The Democrat Party accused Thaksin of masterminding the amnesty bill to free himself from serving a 2-year jail term in a corruption case.