Thai Senate likely to reject amnesty bill, says speaker

Amy Sawitta Lefevre
Former Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra smiles to his supporters at a hotel in Siem Reap province, Cambodia, April 14, 2012. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre

BANGKOK (Reuters) - The Thai Senate will likely reject an amnesty bill critics say is aimed at bringing back convicted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra from exile, the Senate Speaker said on Wednesday, a move that could defuse rising tension on the streets of Bangkok.

The bill is aimed at whitewashing crimes committed by all leaders involved in political unrest since 2004 and is backed by the ruling Puea Thai Party of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister.

Senate Speaker Nikom Wairatpanij said the bill would most probably be rejected, but was berated by some senators at the conference for speaking on their behalf.

"The nation's interests come first. I believe the majority of the Senate will reject this bill," Nikom said.

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Bangkok since Friday in protest at the bill, threatening to disrupt months of calm in a country scarred by bloody unrest in 2010.

More than 5,000 students at Bangkok's prestigious Chulalongkorn University marched through the capital in protest against the bill on Tuesday as public outrage gathered momentum.

The bill will be debated in the Senate on Monday when it will need support from at least 76 of the 150 senators to pass.

Critics say the bill is designed to allow Thaksin to return to Thailand without serving jail time after being found guilty in absentia in 2008 of corruption.

Nikom has worked for governments backed by Thaksin in the past and is widely thought to be supportive of the Puea Thai-led administration of his sister Yingluck.

Analysts say the announcement by the Senate speaker did not guarantee that the bill would be rejected next week.

"We cannot be 100 percent sure which way the Senate will act until it convenes on November 11," said Boonyakiat Karavekphan, a political analyst at Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok.

According to Thai law, the Senate has 180 days to send the bill back to the lower house, which would have to wait until that time before bringing the bill back to the table.

Many believe the government would be reluctant to re-introduce the law.

In her first official remarks since the draft bill passed the lower house last week, Yingluck said on Tuesday she would leave the bill's fate in the hands of senators.

Some analysts read her remarks as a sign of retreat after Thaksin, who is widely believed to be pulling the strings of government from abroad, misjudged the political temperature.

"This is a sure signal that Thaksin wants to reverse and back out. Yingluck chose to act quickly and sent a strong message to the Senate before her party's image is left in tatters," Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University, told Reuters.

In a message posted on his lawyer's Facebook page, Thaksin defended the bill.

"I respect the sentiments of the Thai people but I cannot stand how this law's intentions have been twisted by my opponents who say that the bill is designed to benefit my family and to restore our fortune," said Thaksin.

Opposition leaders heading the protests in Bangkok have vowed to continue their occupation of the city's Democracy Monument area until the bill is thrown out.

"We cannot trust the government and their words until this law is withdrawn from parliament. We will stay until that happens," former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the opposition Democrat Party, said in a speech to protesters at Democracy Monument.

If it becomes law, the amnesty would also whitewash charges against Thaksin's enemies, including Abhisit and his deputy, Suthep Thaugsuban, who were charged with murder for ordering a military crackdown on pro-Thaksin protesters in 2010. About 90 people were killed in the violence.

(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Nick Macfie)