Thais battle over amnesty

It looks as if the controversy over Thailand’s amnesty bill is nearing its end. Although it was approved overwhelmingly by the lower house of parliament last week, it has aroused furious opposition outside. The government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra has been furiously back-pedalling; it now seems likely that the bill will be either rejected or drastically amended by the Senate, and that the government will acquiesce.

In its current form, the bill would provide a sweeping amnesty for political offences stretching back to 2006. The most controversial beneficiary, however, would be the prime minister’s brother, exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, who in 2008 was sentenced to two years jail for abuse of power (with a variety of other charges still pending).

Many countries have had to cope with the question of amnesty for political crimes. When authoritarian rule gives way to democracy, how much immunity should be given to the surviving authoritarians in the name of “reconciliation”? A strong stand against immunity might help to deter future crimes – but it might also encourage future criminals to fight tooth and nail to keep their power.

The Philippines, Chile, Argentina, East Timor, Cambodia, South Africa and many more have faced this dilemma. It’s never an easy choice; every outcome is a compromise between the worthy but incompatible goals of justice and reconciliation.

But those cases all involved new governments deciding how far to go in prosecuting their enemies. The uniqueness of Thaksin’s position is that the decision on amnesty is being made by his friends. For them it is not a matter of justice against a fallen foe, but of how far and how fast they can go in rehabilitating their own leader.

Earlier this year the government appeared set to approve a limited amnesty measure that would have freed most of the pro-Thaksin “red shirt” protesters who were arrested in the 2010 crackdown, while exempting both the red shirt leaders and the authorities who ordered the crackdown. But that would have been of no direct assistance to Thaksin.

Instead, Yingluck decided to go for broke with last week’s much more drastic proposal. Since her election in July 2011 she has won considerable respect for her moderate and conciliatory approach to governing. This miscalculation – and it was a bad one – seems out of character. If she is indeed taking instructions from her brother in Dubai, he has served her poorly this time.

When you’ve gone out on a limb like that, the best option is usually to climb back down as quickly as you can. That’s embarrassing, but the alternatives are worse, sometimes much worse. The longer this controversy goes on, the more it will unite the opposition against her – even though opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva would be another key beneficiary of the amnesty. (He is facing murder charges for the decision to fire on protesters in 2010.)

The protests against the amnesty have reminded many people of the anti-Thaksin “yellow shirt” protests of 2006, which ultimately led to a military coup. This time, however, there it’s hard to see things reaching a point that might provoke that sort of intervention. Nobody wants to repeat the bloodshed of three years ago, and both sides seem committed to a peaceful resolution.

Indeed, Yingluck’s opponents have been given a ready-made issue on which to rally public opinion in their favor. Even if the amnesty bill is dropped, the memory of it will still be alive at the next election. The challenge for the opposition is to get the issue to play as well with the rural masses, Thaksin’s traditional power base, as it obviously does with the demonstrators in Bangkok.

The other difference from 2006 is that King Bhumibol is seven years older (he turns 86 next month). He is less likely to take an active role, and his supporters are that much more focused on the problem of the succession, a problem that is all the more acute because it can’t be openly discussed.

But it’s looking increasingly likely that Thaksin will be still in exile when the crisis finally comes.

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