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Thailand: Draft Amnesty Law Approved by House Likely to Be Turned Down by Senate

(Nov. 12, 2013) On November 1, 2013, Thailand’s House of Representatives approved legislation that would grant amnesty for crimes committed during the period of political unrest in the country following the ouster of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra by a military coup in 2006. The legislation was put forward by the pro-Thaksin ruling party, Pheu Thai (newly constituted after Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party was dissolved in 2007), which holds 265 seats of the 500-member House. Pheu Thai MPs, together with MPs of sympathetic minor parties, hold a 300-member majority vote, and the amnesty legislation was passed by a 310-0 vote when opposition Democratic Party members and others walked out in protest. (Peter Snyder, Thailand Lawmakers Approve Amnesty Bill, PAPER CHASE NEWSBURST (Nov. 1, 2013); Thomas Fuller, Amnesty Bill That Would Clear Ousted Premier Stirs Thai Anger, THE NEW YORK TIMES (Nov. 3, 2013); Thailand: Saphaphuthan Ratsadon (House of Representatives), Inter-Parliamentary Union website (last visited Nov. 6, 2013).)

Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon who was convicted of abuse of power after the coup and sentenced in absentia to two years’ imprisonment, has lived abroad in self-imposed exile since 2008; he currently is in Dubai. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, a Pheu Thai party member, is now prime minister. (Fuller, supra; Warangkana Chomchuen, In a Turnaround, Thai Government Promises Amnesty Bill Will Die, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (Nov. 6, 2013).) The prison term was imposed on Thaksin by the Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions, a special nine-member bench of the Supreme Court sitting as a corruption court, which found that he had violated conflict-of-interest rules in the purchase of land in Bangkok. The judges held that, as Prime Minister, Thaksin was “supposed to work for the benefit of the public.” (Thomas Fuller, Thai Court Convicts Ex-Premier for Conflict in Land Deal, THE NEW YORK TIMES (Oct. 21, 2008).)

The draft law, whose scope was widened by a parliamentary committee, proposes a broad amnesty for acts and persons related to the coup and its aftermath, including “soldiers and politicians who oversaw deadly crackdowns on protesters, and people charged on the basis of investigations by state agencies established after the coup. “(Suttinee Yuvejwattana & Anuchit Nguyen, Thai Senate to Stop Amnesty Bill to Quell Unrest: Southeast Asia, BLOOMBERG (Nov. 6, 2013).) In its initial form the draft called only for the release of members of the public who had been charged with offenses related to political violence subsequent to the coup. Persons charged with lese-majeste, for which prison terms of up to 15 years may be imposed, were not covered by the proposed amnesty law as first written. (Id.)

The changes to the original legislation were reportedly criticized not only by Thaksin’s opponents, who contend that the law would whitewash crimes committed by Thaksin while he held power, but also some members of the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts, who held it would protect Democrat party leaders in power in 2010 who had ordered the use of live ammunition by the army to disperse pro-Thaksin demonstrators that year. (Yuvejwattana & Nguyen, supra.) Formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the Red Shirts, a political protest group comprising mainly rural workers who sport red uniforms, first supported Thaksin against his ouster by the military, and now have shifted their political support to the Pheu Thai party. (Profile: Thailand’s Reds and Yellows, BBC NEWS (July 13, 2013); Thailand, ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA (last visited Nov. 12, 2013).)

Street protests launched by civic and political groups have continued unabated since the proposal passed in the House, and on November 5 it was reported that the Senate will most likely kill the legislation once it is introduced for debate next week. (Warangkana Chomchuen, supra.) In response, the Prime Minister indicated that the government would accept the Senate’s decision should it reject the draft law, and the Pheu Thai Party Secretary-General stated, “[i]f the Senate rejects the bill and sends it back to [the] lower house, the Pheu Thai Party wants to confirm that that its party members will not revive the bill.” (Id.)