At 5:11 pm on July 3, 2011, after all but winning Thailand’s most recent election, Yingluck Shinawatra posted a Facebook message outlining her two main priorities for office: prosperity and national reconciliation. As of November 2013, the signs aren’t promising.
On Tuesday, after at least 10,000 people marched across central Bangkok to protest a blanket amnesty bill that could smooth the return to Thailand of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck appealed for calm amid a rising political storm. “If people learn how to forgive, the country will move forward,” she said in a nationally televised address.
Just over halfway through her four-year term and more than seven years into an enduring political battle, Thailand appears as divided as ever, and possibly on the brink of another crisis. While thousands of protesters accumulated around central Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, led by opposition Democrat Party MP Suthep Thaungsuban, anti-Thaksin protests were gathering numbers and momentum elsewhere.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Seven years after Thaksin was ousted in a coup and later sentenced to two years in prison in absentia for corruption following a probe by a military-appointed graft body, crowds heckled a blanket amnesty that could overturn the cases, and possibly unfreeze assets worth 46 billion baht ($1.47 billion). In Silom, another central district of the capital, business owners closed down a major road and blew whistles to show their discontent. By the end of Monday, Bangkok’s stock market had lost 2.85 percent as investors began to worry of yet further political chaos, wiping 776.75 million baht ($24.86 million) off Thai shares.
A number of private-sector organizations issued statements condemning the bill, as did 25 of Thailand’s leading universities, as protests escalated across the country. Many of those who have opposed the bill are long-term opponents of the billionaire telecoms tycoon turned politician.
More worrying for Thaksin, his sister’s government and the ruling Pheu Thai party are increasing signs that the bill passed by the lower house on Friday may be causing irreparable damage to key support, whether it passes the Senate in the coming weeks or not. In a recent survey conducted in Thailand’s northeast, among the poorest regions of the country in which almost every province was won by the ruling party in the 2011 elections, 46.6 percent of respondents disagreed with a blanket amnesty with just 31.6 percent in support.
Although Pheu Thai MPs voted unanimously for the bill last week amid an opposition boycott, many were whipped into line, Key leaders of the so-called “Red Shirts” have been vocal in their opposition. Ahead of Friday’s contentious vote, the Red Shirt United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship said in a statement it wanted Thaksin to return “gracefully,” which meant it felt the amnesty route was anything but.
Many Red Shirts want former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva held accountable after the army opened fire on their numbers in Bangkok in April and May 2010 in street battles that left more than 90 people dead, most of them civilians. Murder charges against Abhisit and Suthep, Monday’s protest leader, were filed last week but would be nullified if the blanket amnesty passes into law as it stands.
Even Thaksin’s son, Panthongtae Shinawatra, has opposed the bill. In a message on his Facebook page last week he said he and his two sisters were against a clean slate for the “murderers” of 2010.
Meanwhile, Yingluck and Thaksin remain the few major figures caught up in Thailand’s latest political mess to defend the bill in public, calling it a chance for Thailand to move on. “We [politicians fighting] will soon be gone,” Thaksin told the Thai-language daily Post Today in Singapore two days before last week’s divisive vote in the lower house. “It is our children who will take our place and they will have to live in a bruised and battered country because we just want to win… to be in power and have no thought for our country.”
In a teary meeting on Monday with the relatives of Red Shirts killed in the 2010 violence, Yingluck appeared to reconnect with the Shinawatra support base, those few who said they still backed the bill.