Thai senate may kill amnesty bill

THAILAND - Opposition to the controversial amnesty bill spread across the country yesterday, as a diverse group of people and organisations joined a nationwide campaign against a bill that would absolve all law violators involved in political conflicts since 2004. That would include politicians convicted of corruption and serious criminal offences.

Given the rising opposition to the bill - rushed through the House of Representatives last Friday - most senators are now likely to vote against it goes to the Uppher House, Senator Paiboon Nititawan said yesterday.

The 149-member Senate is scheduled to begin its reading of the bill on Monday.

Paiboon, who claims to have sounded out many senators, estimates that as many as 90 senators are likely vote against the bill. He said 60 of them had "shown their intention to oppose the bill from the very beginning" and that 30 others agreed to "vote for the dignity of the Senate by rejecting the bill".

He said the number could exceed 100 if public opposition against the bill remains strong.

If the bill is passed by the Senate and becomes law, it would pardon all crimes related to politics and some corruption cases committed between 2004 and 2013.

Thousands of people took to the streets in Bangkok yesterday, joining a march led by the opposition Democrat Party along the politically significant Rajdamnoen Avenue, while a lunch-break rally attracted a large crowd of mostly businesspeople and office workers on Silom Road in the heart of the capital's business district.

Similar protests were held in many other provinces, including Nakhon Si Thammarat, Songkhla, Khon Kaen, Ranong, Phuket, Phang-nga, Yala and Phitsanulok.

Protest leaders of the Democrat-led rally yesterday decided to move their protest site from Samsen Railway Station to the Democracy Monument, sources said.

The large number of people who joined the rally was beyond expectations, a Democrat source said. The large number of protesters at Democracy Monument will also make the authorities have second thoughts about taking any action.

Officials gave contrasting information yesterday as to whether Democracy Monument was under the Internal Security Act, which was imposed by the Cabinet on October 9 and later extended to the end of this month. The National Security Council said it was, but Deputy Prime Minister Pracha Promnog, who is in charge of security affairs, said it was not.

The ISA has been in effect in eight sub-districts of the three Bangkok districts of Dusit, Phra Nakhon and Pom Prab Sattru Phrai.

Meanwhile, despite the loud opposition, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra yesterday continued supporting the bill. With tears in her eyes, Yingluck called on all sides to forgive and forget.

"We must lend our hands in helping the country. The first thing to be done is to forgive one another so we can move forward," she said. The prime minister made the call when members of 24 families whose relatives were killed during the 2010 political unrest came to meet her at Government House. This group expressed support for the government-backed amnesty bill.

The ruling Pheu Thai Party continued with its push for the law and remained confident that police would be able to keep the protesters under control. A Pheu Thai source said the strategy committee, led by party leader Charupong Ruangsuwan, had agreed yesterday to continue pushing for the blanket amnesty bill. Party MPs have been instructed to explain benefits of the law to their constituents, while some were tasked with lobbying senators to vote for the bill, the source said.

Many business organisations, as well as groups of academics, university students, social workers, medical professionals and lawyers expressed their opposition by issuing separate statements against the proposed law for blanket amnesty.

University presidents respond

The Council of University Presidents of Thailand issued a statement yesterday, signed by rectors from the country's 25 leading universities, expressing concern that the bill would create a bad precedent for Thai society. "There will be misunderstanding that corruption is not evil and the offenders may be absolved through an amnesty law. This bill will severely undermine Thailand's fight against corruption," the statement said.

A large group of anti-amnesty protesters at Urupong intersection, led by leaders of the yellow shirts, was considering whether to merge with the Democrat-led rally, another source said. Nitithorn Lamlua, a leader of the Urupong group, said yesterday that "in a day or two" the protesters would move out of the site, where they have been camping since early October, to an undisclosed location.

The business sector also came out against the contentious bill yesterday. And the sector would continue protesting over it, said Pramon Sutivong, chairman of the Anti-Corruption Organisation of Thailand (ACT). He said they would first seek cooperation from the Senate. If the Upper House passes the bill and a Constitutional Court judgement is sought, they would consider further action, he said.

The country's largest group of private businesses, the Joint Standing Committee on Commerce, Industry and Banking, issued a statement expressing concern. "We urge all parties to find a solution to end this as soon as possible, to maintain peace and confidence in the country's economic strengths and potential," it said.

The committee consists of the Federation of Thai Industries, the Thai Chamber of Commerce and the Thai Bankers Association.

In a separate statement, the Thai Chamber of Commerce said the bill - particularly Article 3, which extends amnesty to criminal offences and corruption cases, aside from those related to political demonstrations - is against international standards and would severely damage the country. The chamber urged politicians, the government and political parties to thoroughly consider a solution that honours mutual benefits.

"If the bill becomes law, it would affect the country's sovereign rating and credibility, which will hurt investment. Meanwhile, the bill contains content that may contradict the UN Convention Against Corruption, ratified by Thailand in 2011. This could damage confidence in the international community," it said.

The chamber, which comprises provincial trade chambers nationwide, warned that foreign investors could shift to other countries, which would exacerbate the weak economy and the tourism industry. Meanwhile, as corruption cases are included, the bill would deepen social division and ruin social values, it said.

In a related development, a survey of residents of 20 northeastern provinces - the main bastion of support for the ruling Pheu Thai Party - found that 46.6 per cent of the 1,190 eligible voters disagreed with a blanket amnesty, according to the results of Khon Kaen University's Isaan Poll released yesterday.

Another 31.6 per cent of the respondents said they agreed with a blanket amnesty, and the remaining 21.8 per cent said they were unsure.

A northeastern academic, Uaychai Watha, said yesterday that a recent survey of the radio audience in the region found that as many as 90 per cent of the respondents opposed blanket amnesty.