Originally published at Siam Voices on October 21, 2013 One of the most heated political issues in Thailand could reach boiling point as a parliamentary committee has retroactively added a passage to a bill that could effectively whitewash former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra of past legal convictions.
One of the dominant issues in recent months is the ongoing wrangling over the so-called amnesty bill. In August, several different drafts, mostly by MPs of the ruling Pheu Thai Party (PT), granting amnesty to various groups were put forward.
In the end, the draft by PT MP Worachai Hema was proposed and passed in its first reading after a (by now almost to be expected) tumultuous and long parliamentary debate and similarly tumultuous scenes outside the building involving protesters. Wocharchai's draft grants all involved in the numerous political protests from the military coup of September 19, 2006 to May 10, 2010 - just a few days before the end of the anti-government red shirt protests - amnesty (both red and yellow shirts), while excluding its leaders and also authorities and politicians that were responsible in the violent crackdowns of May 2010. Like all other drafts, this also excludes those sentenced and imprisoned for lèse majesté offences.
The bill is currently being vetted by a parliamentary committee and on Friday it did this:
The 35-member vetting panel, dominated by MPs from the ruling coalition, voted 18-8 to support a proposal by the panel's deputy chairman Prayuth Siripanich, who is an MP from the ruling Pheu Thai Party. He suggested that Article 3 of the bill should be rewritten so that the amnesty covers persons accused of wrongdoing by a group of people or an organisation set up after the coup of September 19, 2006. (...)
The 2006 coup-makers set up the Assets Examination Committee (AEC) to investigate corruption allegations against members of the Thaksin cabinet.
The AEC's investigations led to many cases against those politicians, including one that led to an imprisonment verdict against Thaksin. In October 2008, the Supreme Court sentenced the ex-prime minister to two years in jail for abuse of power in the Ratchadaphisek land scandal, after his then-wife bought a state-seized land plot at a price much lower than the market price. In February 2010, the court seized Bt46 billion of Thaksin's assets believed to have been earned from abuse of power. There are more cases against Thaksin that have been suspended while he is a fugitive abroad.
"Amnesty bill change by panel 'to benefit' Thaksin", The Nation, October 19, 2013
Another prominent ex-politician that would profit - if said passage is written into law - is Pracha Maleenot, a minister during Thaksin's premiership and whose family (which runs the broadcasting and entertainment giant BEC-TERO) was considered to be one of the main financial supporters of the Thai Rak Thai Party, the original incarnation of today's ruling Pheu Thai.
Last month a court found the former deputy interior minister Pracha guilty of corruption after an investigation of the AEC into the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority's (BMA) purchase in 2004 of 315 fire trucks and 30 fire boats, all worth an estimated THB 6.6bn or $165m* - allegedly almost THB 2bn or $50m* more that the market price. All other defendants' charges in this case were dismissed or acquitted, including then-governor of Bangkok Apirak Kosayodhin of the Democrat Party. Pracha was handed a 12-year prison sentence in abstentia, as he failed to show up during the trial and is rumored to have fled the country.
But the main focus is of course on the possible scenarios involving Thaksin, who is believed to be still in control of the Pheu Thai Party. While many supposedly independent government bodies set up by military junta after the 2006 are heavily politicized with a certain bias against Thaksin, there's no doubt that the former prime minister has a lot to gain from that specific modification of the amnesty bill as it would pave a way for the self-exiled Thaksin to return home without any legal obstacles - and on top of it being reimbursed THB 46bn ($2.3bn) in frozen assets.
The ruling Pheu Thai Party is unsurprisingly drawing fire from its political opponents, as an unhindered return of Thaksin to Thailand would spell a political doomsday scenario for many of his enemies. Ultra-conservative anti-Thaksin groups - currently extremely small in number and impact - are already planning protests against the bill's latest revision.
Meanwhile, the red shirt umbrella organization the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) has reacted rather timidly and avoided specifically addressing the potential loophole for Thaksin, who is supported by a large portion of the movement. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, also did not comment on this issue.
It seems that in this eternal political game, be it the amnesty bill or the constitutional amendments, the ruling Pheu Thai party is testing the waters for a bigger legislative foray, one of which could see the return of Thaksin to Thai soil. However, with each push the government should be careful not to provoke the ever-agitated anti-Thaksin and anti-government forces as Thailand's heated political climate could easily boil over again.
*Exchange rate USD : THB in 2004: 1:40