BANGKOK - Thailand's senate Monday began debating a hotly-contested political amnesty bill as an estimated fifteen thousand anti-government protesters gathered in Bangkok. The senate is due to vote on the bill later Monday. If, as expected, it rejects the legislation it is likely to embolden a range of anti-government forces who have massed on Bangkok's streets for nearly a fortnight.
Critics say the legislation was crafted to pave the way for a return of the polarising ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who is the brother of current prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and a hate figure for many among the Bangkok middle and upper classes.
Thaksin was toppled by royalist generals in 2006 and lives in exile to avoid prison for a corruption conviction that he contends was politically motivated.
"This bill violates the rule of law. All laws must be equal for everyone," said Senator Manoj Kraiwong, echoing the views of several speakers in the televised debate.
The opposition Democrat Party has harnessed the growing anti-government sentiment.
It is holding a anti-amnesty rally on Monday evening -- before the expected vote by the senate -- which it says could draw tens of thousands to the city's political centre, heightening fears of clashes with police.
A Democrat lawmaker Akanat Promphan said the protesters will give the government a "deadline" of 6 pm (1100 GMT) to kill the bill before taking further -- as yet unspecified -- actions.
Yingluck has said she will not try to ram through the bill if the senate rejects it.
While the rallies have so far been peaceful, concerns are mounting that the issue could unleash a fresh bout of political turmoil in a country rocked by a series of rival demonstrations since 2006.
Thousands of police have been deployed to protect Government House -- where Yingluck's offices are -- and parliament in case protests turn ugly, a police spokesman told AFP.
Police said around 15,000 anti-government protesters had gathered at a number of spots across the capital, with most expected to cluster at Democracy Monument for the rally at 6 pm.
Police have tear gas, batons, rubber bullets and water cannon at their disposal, according to Police General Adul Saengsingkaew, but will only use "necessary force" to ensure a peaceful protest.
"I came here to expel the Shin(awatra) family. I want them out," said one protester called Thamathorn, giving only one name. "Don't stay here and cheat this country. Get out!"
The bill dovetails with a scheduled ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague on a border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia.
If the ICJ rules against Thailand, the country's opposition -- which includes some hardline nationalists among its supporters -- is likely to try to direct public anger towards the government.
On Sunday tens of thousands of government-aligned "Red Shirts" rallied in Bangkok's suburbs in their first show of force during the amnesty wrangle.