Govt needs to own up to its amnesty error

Govt needs to own up to its amnesty error

Barbed wire, barriers and police lineups have become a familiar sight. The issues that have divided people, pitted different groups against the government and against one another are the same old ones, pivoting around former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

As anti-amnesty and anti-Thaksin crowds swell, however, there is hope that people will find a way out of this political crisis; a solution that does not involve the use of force and does not result in dead bodies.

The pressure is on the government.

The first thing that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her cabinet should do is to admit their mistake in ramming the blanket amnesty bill down the people's throats.

The content of the wholesale amnesty bill is bad. The way in which the Pheu Thai Party tried to enact was far worse.

Limiting a debate on such a controversial bill in the House to an hour and abruptly voting to pass it at 4.25am is unbecoming of an administration that has prided itself as being the embodiment of democracy.

Ms Yingluck and her ministers have never owned up to this lapse of judgement. In fact, in her first televised speech after protests against the amnesty bill began to gather steam, the premier devoted a good part of her address to defending the controversial bill.

She insisted the government believed the law would help unite the country, let bygones be bygones and help everyone affected by the tumultuous past start anew. Her words were simply an echo of her brother's comment, given in earlier interviews, about the need to "set the country back to zero".

The simple truth, which Ms Yingluck and her government probably have not realised, is that it's impossible for them to defend the blanket amnesty bill or their sneaky attempts to enact it.

Do not forget that it's Ms Yingluck's Pheu Thai Party which insisted on seeking a limited amnesty from prosecution for rank-and-file protesters who ended up in jail because of the 2010 violence, by proposing legislation backed by MP Worachai Hema.

Then, in a sleight of hand, Pheu Thai's own MP Prayuth Siripanich abused the party's majority vote in the House committee working on the bill, and changed the limited-amnesty draft into a blanket one that would pardon all political cases from 2004 up to August this year.

It was Pheu Thai MPs who endorsed the change. It was also Pheu Thai MPs who voted to pass the bill in the House, in the wee hours of the morning as if they were thieves stealing public property. They must have known the law they tried to pass was not what they promised the public it would be.

With anti-amnesty bill protests showing no signs of letting up and every indication they are ready to be transformed into anti-government ones, the government has tried to de-escalate the rallies by saying there is no reason for them to continue. The government, after all, promised to let the bill die if it is rejected by the Senate. What the government does not realise, however, is that it is no longer just dealing with a public disagreement over a piece of legislation. What has been unfolding is a crisis of confidence.

If the government fails to realise this reality and continues to counter ongoing opposition with self-righteousness, confrontation will become unavoidable. Having some of its ministers bring the red shirts into the capital on Sunday to show their support for the government is just another one of its miscalculations.

The public does not want to hear the government's claims that it can't be unseated because it came from a democratic election.

The public wants to know the democratically elected government regrets the overconfident way it imposed its self-serving agenda on the people. We want to hear that the government and Pheu Thai realised it overstepped its electoral mandate in its relentless push for a blanket amnesty that will benefit a few people at the cost of the country's justice system.

Unless the government and Pheu Thai admit this misstep and open their minds enough to respect the minority, we will come back time and again to this line of confrontation with barbed wire in between.

Atiya Achakulwisut is Deputy Editor, Bangkok Post.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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