Why the amnesty bill caused a split between ruling party and red shirts

Why the amnesty bill caused a split between ruling party and red shirts

THAILAND - According to Nattawut Saikuar, the passage of the "blanket amnesty" bill by the House of Representatives in the wee hours of November 1 has posed a most difficult challenge for the relationship between the red shirts and the ruling Pheu Thai Party.

The red-shirt leader, currently also deputy commerce minister, admitted to a gathering of red-shirt supporters over the weekend that he had been put in a "very difficult" position, having to prevent further splits between ruling party and the red-shirt movement.

A wing of the red-shirts has publicly and vehemently opposed Pheu Thai's ramming through of the amnesty bill, which opens the way for clemency to be granted to Democrat leaders Abhisit Vejjajiva and Suthep Thaugsuban, whom they label "murderers", responsible for the deaths of at least 91 people during their 2010 crackdown on anti-government protests.

Ironically, on the same evening, the two Democrat leaders were also holding a rally against the amnesty bill, which they oppose for a totally different reason - that a wholesale amnesty would clear former premier Thaksin Shinawatra of all his wrongdoings.

The red shirts, of course, would like to see Thaksin return to Thailand "to fight his case". Pheu Thai MPs, in voting in overwhelming numbers for the bill, were hoping it would bring Thaksin home as a free man.

Why, then, are some red shirts against the bill?

Nattawut perhaps summed up the sentiment of the red shirts who oppose the bill when he told supporters:

"My message to premier Thaksin is that, nobody hates you. We all want you to come home, but you should return in a graceful manner…"

The eloquent red-shirt leader was responding to a rumour reportedly spread by Pheu Thai MPs that he and other "hard-core" red shirts were in fact trying to prevent Thaksin from coming back.

"That is a malicious rumour spread against me," Nattawut declared. He said he hoped his latest message would not be twisted by certain Pheu Thai MPs when they report back to Thaksin.

The growing "misunderstanding" between Pheu Thai and the red shirts isn't just speculation fanned by the opposition or the anti-Thaksin groups. Nattawut admitted that things had never been this bad between the supposed allies.

He and three others in the party decided to abstain from the vote on the amnesty bill to show their dissatisfaction with a Pheu Thai move that would "betray" the red shirts.

"I have no problem if my action results in my being ousted from the party or my Cabinet portfolio. If I have to choose, I will always decide to be a red shirt rather than a Cabinet member or an MP," he declared, to loud applause from his audience.

Is it time the red shirts formed their own political party?

Nattawut raised the question himself - and then answered it in the negative. "No, if we form our own party, the votes would be split and the Democrats would win the election."

What probably struck many as a crucial shift, however, was when he announced, perhaps for the first time, that the Pheu Thai Party should not take the red shirts' votes at the next election for granted.

"Let me make it clear. The Pheu Thai Party must now realise that votes from the red shirts do not necessarily have to be cast in favour of the party anymore," he said. Yet, another loud and prolonged ovation greeted his dramatic statement.

It doesn't augur well for the Yingluck government, whose strategy of last resort if the ongoing political stand-off spins out of control would be to dissolve Parliament and call a snap election.

Attempts will continue at all levels to patch up the rift between the red shirts and Pheu Thai. Charupong Ruangsuwan, the party's nominal head, told the Matichon daily earlier this week:

"We believe that the party and the red shirts are not divided. Our two-pronged strategy is like the rails and the train. We have to be together at all time to bear the burden of developing the country. We are like a married couple. Yes, we may have some quarrels sometimes and we may have different ideas at times, but we are not thinking of a divorce. As the leader of the Pheu Thai Party, let me declare that the party is not thinking about divorcing the red shirts."

But while there was only one scenario for Pheu Thai in case of a new election, the amnesty bill has spawned a new degree of uncertainty for both Thaksin and Pheu Thai.

It's almost impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

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