BANGKOK – Thailand's parliament on Friday moved another step closer to granting amnesty to people involved in the political conflict that has marred the country for almost a decade, prompting thousands of protesters to take to the streets and raising fears of possible new violence.
The House of Representatives voted 310-0 early Friday to pass a draft of the amnesty bill after 19 hours of heated debate during which lawmakers opposed to it walked out. The legislation must be approved by the Senate before it becomes law.
Critics argue the bill would whitewash crimes of self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pave the way for his return to Thailand. Others are opposed because it would grant amnesty to those responsible the killing of around 90 protesters during a wave of anti-government rallies that brought the heart of Bangkok to a standstill in 2010.
Thaksin remains highly polarizing seven years after being ousted by a military coup over allegations of corruption and disrespect for Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Opposition to his return arouses fierce passions that sometimes have erupted into violence.
Thaksin, whose sister Yingluck Shinawatra is now prime minister, garnered large majorities in winning office, especially from rural voters who gained from his populist policies.
Anticipating possible unrest as lawmakers readied to debate the bill, Thailand's interior minister earlier this week ordered provincial governors to be on alert for violent protests or disruptions to public utilities.
Before dawn Friday, more than 5,000 opposition Democrat Party supporters opposed to the amnesty plan rallied outside their headquarters. The party's lawmakers said they would file a complaint to the Constitutional Court to block the legislation.