BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters took to the streets of the Thai capital on Friday after lawmakers approved a draft political amnesty bill that could allow the return of self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, one of Thailand's most polarizing figures.
The bill's opponents say it's a thinly veiled attempt by the ruling Puea Thai Party and its leader Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to whitewash the crimes of her billionaire brother, Thaksin, who was overthrown in a military coup in 2006 and has lived abroad since 2008 to escape corruption charges.
Although it could be weeks before the bill becomes law, the protests in Bangkok by Thaksin's opponents, including royalist groups and members of the opposition Democrat Party, threaten to disturb months of relative calm in a country scarred by bloody unrest in 2010.
"Thaksin would not brazenly push this amnesty bill without absolute certainty that it will pass and once that happens, tempers will flare among the anti-Thaksin camp," said Kan Yuenyong, a political analyst at the Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank.
"The situation on the streets could become very volatile indeed."
Thaksin, who won elections in 2001 and 2005 by landslides, remains a populist hero among the poor, whose votes helped Yingluck and her party sweep elections in 2011. A year earlier, Thaksin's red-shirted supporters paralyzed Bangkok demanding the military-backed government hold elections.
Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon, became the first leader in Thai history to win a parliamentary majority on its own, and formed the first elected government to serve a full term, after which it was re-elected.
But corruption scandals and alleged abuses of power steadily eroded his popularity among Bangkok's middle classes. That was compounded by royalist accusations that Thaksin was undermining the country's powerful monarchy, which he denied.
Since fleeing, Thaksin has hovered ghost-like over Thai politics, setting the broad policy lines for the government.
Some groups who have backed the government, however, say they feel betrayed and have criticized the bill, saying it would grant amnesty to those responsible for the killing of more than 90 protesters, most of them Thaksin's supporters, during two months of anti-government demonstrations in 2010.
They fear the amnesty would extend immunity from prosecution to former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was in power in 2010 and authorized the use of live ammunition to disperse the protesters. Abhisit, who is now opposition leader, and his former deputy, Suthep Thaugsuban, were charged last week with murder in connection with the 2010 crackdown.
"There are red shirts who would rather see those responsible for violence in 2010 go to jail than to bring Thaksin home," Thida Thawornseth, leader of the red shirts' United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, told Reuters.
Thailand's national security chief, Paradorn Pattanatabutr, said he feared the influence of provocateurs who could spark clashes between protesters and police.
By Friday afternoon, police said there were about 5,000 protesters gathered at three locations in Bangkok with the biggest demonstration being held at Samsen railway station in Bangkok's historic quarter.
"The protests will likely increase investors' perception of instability," said Christian Lewis, a Southeast Asia specialist at political risk consultants Eurasia Group.
Yingluck has enjoyed a fragile peace since taking office by avoiding issues that could antagonize Thaksin's critics and by forging better relationships with his enemies, including the powerful military.
Members of the Red Sunday Group, an off-shoot of the pro-Thaksin red-shirt movement, say they are against any amnesty that would pardon those responsible for the 2010 crackdown on protesters. About 200 Red Sunday members showed up at a Bangkok rally last week but they have no plans for further protests.
The opposition Democrat Party has threatened to escalate their protest if the bill isn't withdrawn. "We don't care if this bill benefits our own leaders too, we don't want it. If this law passes, anybody can give orders to carry out acts of violence without any accountability," said Nipit Intharasombat, a Democrat Party lawmaker.
Rights advocates say the bill sets a dangerous precedent at a time when Thailand is trying to resolve deeply entrenched political divisions that have dogged the country for years.
"This bill shows that a cycle of violence and impunity is taking deeper root in Thai society," said Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand at Human Rights Watch.
"Yingluck promised justice for victims of the 2010 violence but she never delivered. The bill's passing today is a peak moment of betrayal towards those who have supported her."
Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Editing by Robert Birsel