BANGKOK — The tree-lined streets outside the Thai parliament may soon be converted into a theater of protest. That is, if the motley collection of anti-government groups live up to their threats. In their crosshairs is an amnesty bill that Worachai Hema, a government lawmaker, has proposed to be taken up when a new parliamentary session begins in August.
It is one of six bills with varying criteria for pardons that have been tabled for the next legislative session. And despite their differences, all six share a common goal—to usher in a spirit of reconciliation to heal the political wounds that have continued to fester since Thailand’s September 2006 coup, which saw the twice-elected government of then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra turfed from power by the powerful military. Even Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who was the army chief at the time of Thailand’s 18th putsch, is a sponsor of one reconciliation bill in his new avatar as a parliamentarian.
But, as is now clear, none of the six bills has gained as much attention as the one being tabled by the governing Phue Thai party’s representative from Samut Prakan. And it goes beyond the chorus railing against the administration of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who view the Worachai bill as a ruse to benefit the premier’s elder brother, Thaksin, now living as a globe-trotting fugitive in exile.
As significantly, this bill has become a rallying cry for Thailand’s strongest and most enduring street protest movement—the Red Shirts. Given how dependent the Yingluck administration and Thaksin are on the foot soldiers of the Red Shirts to ensure victory in the general elections, it is a cry that neither of them can risk ignoring.
And the prospect of the Red Shirts descending in large numbers outside the gates of parliament to throw their weight behind the bill cannot be discounted, reveals a security source. Such a presence to counter opposition from the anti-government movement also eyeing the same turf “could lead to clashes,” he observed.
The Red Shirts’ endorsement of the Worachai bill is rooted in the campaign for justice launched by the leading arm of this movement, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), and other groups not linked to the UDD, dubbed by some here as the “Free Red Shirts.” The campaign emerged after the bloody crackdown that ended weeks of Red Shirts-led street protests on May 19th, 2010. Over 90 people were killed, of whom 82 were civilians, and more than 2,000 people sustained injuries in the wake of heavily armed troops driving off anti-government protesters from Ratchaprasong, the center of Bangkok’s glitzy shopping mall core.
Ever since then, the government of the day, a coalition led by the Democrat Party, now in opposition, has been buffeted by the Red Shirts’ rage. The military’s role has not been spared, either. That explains why the Red Shirts warmed to the Worachai proposal, which seeks pardons only for all low-ranking members from across the country’s color-coded protest movement who are facing charges since the 2006 coup. An estimated 1,000 violators stand to gain if the bill is passed, including protesters from the conservative, pro-royalist Yellow Shirts movement, the nemesis of the Reds.
It is an equation that does not appear to trouble Korkaew Pikulthong, a UDD leader and Phue Thai parliamentarian. He puts on a nonchalant face to defend a position that deprives him of a reprieve. So, too, 23 other UDD leaders facing “terrorism” charges who have been making weekly trips to the criminal courts for months. In fact, most of them have spoken out against another amnesty bill proposed by Labor Minister Chalerm Yubamrung, who is pushing for a blanket freedom.
Chalerm’s proposed reprieve extends to the political and military leadership, in addition to the rank-and-file of the protest movements. His much publicized gambit a few months back also includes amnesty for Thaksin as part of his pledge to “bring Thaksin home.”
“We have accepted that the Worachai bill is an important first step towards reconciliation,” the 48-year-old Korkaew told The Irrawaddy. “Chalerm’s proposal overlooks the concerns of the Red Shirts and the relatives of the people who died fighting for democracy and a political system that reflects the people’s will, [and] not what the elites want through their control.”
It is a view that Thaksin, as the de facto leader of the Phue Thai party, appears to have accepted—or at least did so on May 19th this year, when he delivered a speech via Skype that night to thousands of Red Shirt supporters who had packed the streets of Ratchaprasong to commemorate the third anniversary of the 2010 crackdown. He publicly endorsed the Worachai bill, which prompted wild cheers from the crowds.
Thaksin’s May 19th speech and the acclamation this year stood in stark contrast to the words he uttered to the throng of Red Shirts at the previous year’s anniversary gathering. Then, he lectured to the Ratchaprasong crowd by employing the imagery of a ship and a car to state that it was time the Red Shirts moved on. He thanked them for being the sea that helped his ship to come ashore. And now it was time for him to move on in a car, he said.
The implication that his journey home mattered more than the Red Shirts’ clamoring for justice received a prompt response that night: shock and silence. Claps were barely heard. And some among the thousands of Red Shirts shed tears. This mood of disappointment was as palpable on the stage of the rally, where leaders of the movement had sat to follow Thaksin’s speech projected on the large screens placed in the midst of the crowds.
To some observers of Red Shirt politics, it confirmed the suspicions among the movement that Thaksin was working behind the scenes to strike a deal with the country’s military and the traditional elite to pave a route home. “Thaksin first made these ideas known about two months before, when he met Red Shirt supporters in Cambodia,” says Nick Nostitz, a German photographer who has authored two books on the rise of the Red Shirts.
Thaksin’s about-face since then was also reflected in his weekend meeting with Worachai, in which the latter joined other Phue Thai parliamentarians in Hong Kong to celebrate Thaksin’s 64th birthday. The deposed former premier had spoken in favor of Worachai’s bill, according to media reports.
Such a turn has brought into relief a view among political observers that neither the Yingluck administration nor Thaksin can take Red Shirt support for granted. And the Worachai bill, more than a lightning rod, emerges as an occasion of Red Shirts muscle flexing against their patron—a rare moment that has compelled Thaksin to concede ground.
The Red Shirts have made their mark with the Worachai bill, which has become a test of the relationship between the movement and the Yingluck government, according to Suda Rangkupan, an academic at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University and a coordinator of a pro-Red Shirt group campaigning for justice. “The government risks losing Red Shirts’ support if they ignore the Worachai bill,” she said in an interview. “Its popularity will drop in this important constituency.”