Editorial: The Folly of the Amnesty Bill, One Year Later

Chulalongkorn University students demonstrate against the amnesty bill in Bangkok on 5 November 2014.

We should not forget the political fumbling of the Pheu Thai party that ultimately led to the suspension of democracy in Thailand today.

This month marks the first anniversary of the mass street demonstrations against former Prime Minsiter Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration that paved the way for the military coup on 22 May 2014.

One year later, it's critical not to let the six months of chaotic and sporadically violent protests that broke out on 29 November overshadow the events that sparked the turmoil in the first place: the then-ruling Pheu Thai Party’s attempt to pass the highly controversial "blanket amnesty bill" in early November of 2013. 

The bill, which was overwhelmingly approved by Pheu Thai MPs in the early morning of 1 November without the presence of opposition lawmakers, would have dissolved all political charges and convictions in Thailand from 2004 to 2013. 

The sweeping scope of the bill alienated Thais across the political spectrum, as it would have pardoned polarizing figures like former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinwatra, who was found guilty of corruption in 2008, and former Democrat Party PM Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was charged with murder for authorising a deadly crackdown on Redshirt protesters in 2010. 

It was clear to most that the bill’s all-encompassing nature was motivated by a desire to allow Thaksin, the de facto leader of the Pheu Thai party, to return to Thailand after years of living in exile.

Yet not only was the content of the blanket amnesty bill dubious; the Pheu Thai party's handling of the legislative process surrounding the bill was an affront to the principles of parliamentary democracy.

The original draft of the bill was intended to pardon only protesters, not the leaders of Thailand’s political movements. But Pheu Thai MPs violated parliamentary regulations by broadening the purview of the bill to the point that it no longer resembled the initial draft at all.

Earning accusations of being a "tyrannical majority," the Pheu Thai party did not allow any debate during the session when the bill was passed in the early hours of 1 November. The party also explicitly instructed lawmakers not to challenge the bill, and demanded that four dissenting Pheu Thai MPs – including a daughter of a military officer who lost his life during 2010 crackdown – merely abstain, instead of vote against the motion.  

Despite the government’s insistence that extending blanket amnesty was a gesture of "national reconciliation," the bill infuriated nearly all parties and political camps across the Kingdom.

Yellowshirt leaders who were being prosecuted for their role in the 2008 protests said they were willing to contest their charges in court. So did Abhisit and his deputy, Suthep Thaugsuban. Meanwhile, many Redshirt activists demanded that those responsible for the 2010 crackdown be brought to justice rather than pardoned by the bill.

Anger over the bill quickly spiraled into massive protests in Bangkok that pushed Yingluck to dissolve the House in December and call a snap election. Though sparked by fury over the amnesty bill, the protests later developed into a full-scale repudiation of Yingluck's government and even democracy itself, culminating in the military coup on 22 May.

Thailand’s coup-makers dismantled what was left of Yingluck’s government, tore up the 2007 constitution, and appointed several conservative and military-stacked councils to oversee a year of national reforms before the next election is held.

It's not clear when democracy will return to Thailand, but when it does, those running for office must remember the painful lessons from the folly of the blanket amnesty bill. 

Future politicians must bear in mind that participating in a parliamentary democracy comes with a responsibility to respect the rule of law and place the interest of the public above political machinations. 

 
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