Thai leader defends contentious amnesty bill

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Associated Press

Posted on November 5, 2013 at 5:02 AM

Updated Tuesday, Nov 5 at 7:07 AM

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's prime minister on Tuesday defended a political amnesty bill that has sparked large protests in the country's capital, but suggested her party will drop the legislation if it is rejected by the Senate.

Opponents of the bill say it is designed to bring former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra back from overseas exile. After being overthrown in a 2006 military coup, Thaksin fled into self-imposed exile in 2008 to avoid serving a two-year prison sentence on a corruption conviction.

His sister and the current prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, said in a televised address Tuesday that the amnesty could solve the country's longstanding political divisions.

"The principles of amnesty are an option that's worth considering because if all sides agree to forgive each other, I believe the conflict would dissolve and the country can move forward," she said.

More than 90 people were killed in 2010 during a crackdown on rallies in the heart of Bangkok by pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts" who were demanding that a Democrat Party-led government resign.

The original draft of the bill, approved in principle by the House of Representatives in August, did not extend the amnesty to leaders of the pro- and anti-Thaksin groups, but a committee in mid-October changed the bill to include them.

The new version was passed by the House on Friday, igniting demonstrations that have drawn tens of thousands of protesters onto Bangkok's streets.

The Senate is expected to debate the bill next Monday. If it rejects the legislation, the lower house can wait 180 days to pass it again and forward it to the king for formal approval.

Yingluck urged the senators to consider the bill "on the basis of reconciliation and compassion."

She said she believes the lower house will accept the Senate's decision, suggesting that her Pheu Thai party will not push the legislation further if the Senate rejects it.

She did not address accusations that the bill would pave the way for her brother's return.

Yingluck's speech prompted Pheu Thai to announce it would back down if the Senate rejects the legislation.

"What we want is, clearly, peace for the people. If we thought we were creating reconciliation but instead were making the conflict spiral, we are willing to respect the Senate's decision," Pheu Thai Secretary-General Phumtham Wechayachai said.

A group of senators said Tuesday they will reject the legislation.

The amended legislation has been criticized by various groups, including international rights organizations, critics of Thaksin, and even Red Shirt members who oppose immunity for those involved in the 2010 crackdown.

"We have to take everyone's opinions into consideration. Even though it was passed by the House but other parts of the society, academics, students, people, did not want it, we would listen," Senate Speaker Nikom Wairatpanij told The Associated Press. "We don't want any more chaos in the country."

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