By THANYARAT DOKSONEAssociated Press
BANGKOK (AP) - Thai lawmakers on Wednesday began debating a highly contentious bill to give amnesty for political offenders, which threatens to revive the often violent social unrest that plagued Thailand for years.
The government-sponsored bill proposes a blanket amnesty to all those charged with crimes related to Thailand's various upheavals since Sept. 19, 2006, the day a military coup ousted then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra while he was on an overseas trip.
Even though the bill excludes Thaksin - Thailand's most divisive figure in recent history - it is bitterly opposed by the opposition, who see it as an underhanded attempt to bring him back home without fear of being jailed for a 2008 conviction. Activists also oppose the bill, saying it would let human rights abusers off the hook for their actions while suppressing past public protests.
Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra is now the prime minister and the government is packed with his loyalists. The opposition fears that the bill, if passed, would give Yingluck an opportunity to look for loopholes in the law to facilitate her brother's return.
About 2,000 opposition Democrat Party supporters gathered outside Parliament before the debate began Wednesday, but didn't carry out their threat to break through a police cordon around the building, easing fears of violence.
Frenzied headlines in the local press for the past week had been touting "rising tension" and the possibility of a "major clash."
To many, Thaksin was a savior of the poor who challenged Bangkok's traditional ruling elite by consistently winning elections handsomely, thanks to his populist policies. But his opponents see him as a corrupt businessman who enriched himself, and was not respectful enough of the country's revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
His troubles began in 2006 when the military ousted him after increasingly large demonstrations called for his ouster. In 2008, even though his allies had temporarily taken back control of government, he was sentenced in absentia to two years in jail on a conflict of interest charge, which he would have to serve if he returns.
Also in 2008, Thaksin's opponents, who called themselves the "yellow shirts," occupied the prime minister's offices for about three months and Bangkok's two airports for a week. In 2010, about 90 people were killed when Thaksin's supporters, the "red shirts," occupied part of downtown Bangkok for around two months before being swept away by the army.
Although the government has a majority in the lower house, it is sensitive to the potential of social unrest if Thaksin gets an amnesty. An earlier parliamentary effort that could have led to a pardon for Thaksin was derailed by courts.
Human rights advocates also say an amnesty would provide impunity for wrongdoers as it covers the 2010 period when the bloody military crackdown ended the "red shirt" protests.
The prime minister at the time, Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, is facing charges of murder in connection with the crackdown, though his case has not yet reached the court.
Cecile Pouilly, spokeswoman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Tuesday in Geneva that the bill could pardon people involved in abuses during the 2010 crackdown on anti-government protesters.
She told reporters the Thai government must ensure any amnesty measure "excludes those who are responsible for human rights violations and to take steps to prosecute perpetrators of such violations."
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