Thailand's Senate has defeated an amnesty bill that could have led to the return from exile of deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, but opponents of the bill vowed to continue their protests against the government.
The main opposition Democrat Party called for civil disobedience and a three-day nationwide strike beginning Wednesday in what is seen as a campaign to bring down the government led by Thaksin's sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Critics say the amnesty bill was an attempt by the government to whitewash Thaksin's alleged crimes and pave the way for his return. Thaksin, a highly divisive figure, fled the country in 2008 to escape a two-year jail term on a corruption charge.
The Senate voted 141-0 late Monday to reject the bill after the ruling party withdrew its support. Although the more-powerful lower house can legally pass legislation without Senate approval after a 180-day wait, Yingluck and the government coalition parties have pledged that the bill will not be revived.
Demonstrations against the bill have spread since it was passed by the lower house on Nov. 1. Their target was to oppose the bill and Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup over allegations of corruption and disrespect for King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Disputes between Thaksin's supporters and opponents arouse fierce passions which culminated in a 2010 military crackdown on Thaksin supporters that left about 90 people dead.
Paving the way for Thaksin's return has been an unspoken priority of Yingluck's government, which won an absolute parliamentary majority in 2011 elections due largely to Thaksin's popularity in rural areas and among the urban poor, who benefited from his government's populist programs.
The bill also triggered opposition from the pro-government supporters who wanted to prosecute those behind the killings during the 2010 crackdown.
On Monday evening, Democrat Party lawmakers called for a three-day strike by businesses and schools to allow people to join the protests; a withholding of taxes that allegedly go for corruption; the display of the national flag; and the blowing of whistles, which have become a tool of protest, near government leaders.
Democrat lawmaker and former Deputy Prime Minisiter Suthep Thaugsuban, along with eight other party lawmakers, said they were resigning their parliamentary seats to lead the anti-government campaign. The resignations are a legal shield for the party, which could face dissolution if its lawmakers were found guilty of trying to unlawfully unseat a constitutional government.
Although the protests have drawn a high profile and are the strongest ever against Yingluck's government, it was unclear if they are sustainable, especially in view of the overwhelming support Yingluck's government has in Parliament.
The original draft of the bill did not extend amnesty to the leaders of both the pro- and anti-Thaksin groups, but a House committee in mid-October suddenly changed the bill to include both. The last-minute change led to criticism that it was planned all along to encompass Thaksin.
"If Mr. Thaksin and other leaders had not been added to the amnesty bill coverage, the majority of the people would have agreed to give amnesty to the ordinary people affected (in the conflict)," said Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, a law professor at Bangkok's Thammasat University.