Thai opposition urges protests against amnesty bill
Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is greeted by well-wishers as he arrives for his birthday party in Hong Kong on July 26, 2012
The controversial legislation, which is due to be debated in parliament on Thursday, would cover all crimes related to political unrest since 2004, apart from defaming the monarchy.
The ruling party of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra -- Thaksin's sister -- has ordered all its lawmakers to vote in favour of the bill.
Supporters of the amnesty say it will give Thailand a fresh start after years of turmoil culminating in mass protests in 2010 that left dozens of civilians dead in a military crackdown.
But opponents fear it will perpetuate a culture of impunity and absolve Thaksin of his crimes.
"Prime Minister Yingluck's government insists on exploiting its parliamentary majority to pass an amnesty bill to whitewash Thaksin's corruption as well as the core terrorist protest leaders," the deputy leader of the opposition Democrat Party, Suthep Thaugsuban, told reporters.
The party -- which was in power at the time of the 2010 crackdown -- said more than 10,000 people were expected to protest against the bill at a railway station in Bangkok on Thursday evening.
Thailand has been rocked by a series of rival street protests since royalist generals ousted Thaksin in a bloodless coup in 2006.
The former telecoms tycoon is loved by many rural and poor Thais for his populist policies while in power, but his opponents accuse him of being corrupt, dictatorial and a threat to the monarchy.
Thaksin lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai to avoid prison for a corruption conviction -- imposed in his absence in 2008 -- that he contends was politically motivated.
In 2010, mass rallies by Thaksin's "Red Shirt" supporters against the previous government descended into the kingdom's worst civil violence in decades, with more than 90 people killed and nearly 1,900 wounded in street clashes and a military crackdown.
The opposition said it would intensify its planned rally until the amnesty bill is withdrawn -- a demand rejected by Yingluck's administration which insists it is sponsored by a ruling-party MP rather than the government.
The opposition has denounced a decision by the attorney general to prosecute its leader, former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, and his one-time deputy Suthep on murder charges related to the 2010 crackdown as a ploy to pressure it to support the amnesty.
The Red Shirts also oppose the bill, demanding justice for the deaths of their supporters in 2010, when tens of thousands of people brought parts of central Bangkok to a standstill for weeks.
They were demanding elections to replace Abhisit's government, which they accused of taking office undemocratically in 2008 through a parliamentary vote after a court stripped Thaksin's allies of power.
Twenty-four Red Shirt leaders are currently on trial on terrorism charges related to the 2010 rallies.
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