About 2,000 anti-government demonstrators converged near the Thai parliament yesterday in an opposition-led rally against a controversial bill offering amnesty for political violence in the divided nation.
Hundreds of riot police carrying shields and batons barricaded the approaches to the legislature with concrete blocks and barbed wire to stop demonstrators reaching the building in the historic area of Bangkok.
The government of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has been braced for several days for the rally.
The demonstration raised fears of fresh unrest in the politically turbulent country as parliament began to debate the amnesty proposals yesterday afternoon.
Opposition Democrat lawmakers, including the former Thai prime minister and current party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, led supporters to the barricades about 200m from the legislature gates.
After a standoff, police said they would allow only lawmakers through to parliament, prompting a plea from Democrat leaders for the protesters to disperse, but a reporter at the scene said people remained in the area, with about 50 of them trying to push through the blockade.
Before entering parliament Abhisit praised the marchers’ resolve, but urged them to stand down.
“We cannot rush this fight which will be long ... so we must be prudent,” he said.
The former prime minister also accused the government of attempting to “whitewash” human rights abuses by backing the amnesty bill.
The proposed amnesty would scrap charges against those involved in political unrest between the time of the military coup that toppled then-Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006 until May last year. Leaders would be excluded.
Anti-government factions fear it will be manipulated by the ruling Puea Thai government to waive convictions against Thaksin, who is Yingluck’s brother.
“I came here for justice. I don’t want an illegitimate bill,” 55-year-old protester Prapas Sunantapreeda said.
Thailand has been riven by political tensions since the overthrow of Thaksin, who lives abroad, but still attracts the loyalty of the kingdom’s poor, rural working class.
The UN on Tuesday urged Yingluck’s government to ensure that any amnesty “excludes those who are responsible for human rights violations,” including during deadly political violence in 2010.
Two months of pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” protests against Abhisit’s government brought much of Bangkok to a standstill and culminated in a bloody military crackdown three years ago. About 90 people were killed in the unrest, with about 1,900 injured.
Abhisit is facing murder charges in connection with the crackdown. No military officials have been prosecuted.
Mass demonstrations, often involving bloodshed, have become a recurrent feature of Thailand’s politics in recent years, with ultra-royalist nationalist “Yellow Shirts” and their Red Shirt foes both taking to the streets.
An attempt to introduce an amnesty bill last year was aborted after Yellow Shirts and ultra-nationalists — who support the Democrat Party — rallied outside the legislature.
The Yellow Shirts have proven to be a powerful street force in the past, drawing on support from Bangkok’s elite and elements in the military. They helped unseat Thaksin and claimed the scalps of two allied governments in less than five years.