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Published: Tuesday November 12, 2013 MYT 12:50:02 AM
Updated: Tuesday November 12, 2013 MYT 12:51:04 AM

Thai Senate rejects amnesty bill as opposition mounts

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's Senate rejected on Monday a government-backed amnesty bill that has sparked mass protests in Bangkok, a decision that could ease political tensions over a possible return from exile of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

In a late night session, 141 senators voted unanimously to return the bill to the lower house, complicating what critics say are efforts by the pro-Thaksin ruling party to bring him home without serving jail time for a 2008 graft conviction.

Thaksin, still adored by his mostly poor, rural supporters but distrusted by much of the Thai establishment, was convicted in absentia on charges he says were politically motivated. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is now Thai prime minister.

"The Senate has voted and fully rejects this bill," said Senate president Surachai Liengboonlertchai.

The government has been under pressure to ditch the bill amid demonstrations, mostly by royalists and nationalists, which have highlighted the deep political divisions that have plagued Thailand since a 2006 coup that toppled Thaksin.

The Senate's scuttling of the bill does not mark an end to the long-running saga over Thaksin's comeback. The ruling Puea Thai party controls the lower house and according to the constitution can re-introduce the bill in another 180 days.

In an effort to cool tempers, his sister Shinawatra gave televised speeches last week saying her government would withdraw the draft if rejected by the Senate. But opponents say a withdrawal is not enough and want it scrapped completely.

PROTESTS

"We will fight until this bill is wiped off the face of this earth," Suthep Thaugsuban, a protest leader and former deputy prime minister, told a rally on Monday.

He called on Thais not to go to work from Wednesday to Friday and instead to join the protests.

Billionaire former telecoms tycoon Thaksin commands strong support among the rural and urban working-class poor, but is reviled by members of the elite, who used corruption scandals and claims that he was undermining the monarchy to mobilise the middle classes against him. Thaksin denies the accusations.

Some elements of the pro-Thaksin "red shirt" movement are also against the bill because it would absolve those who ordered troops to quell their protests in 2010 in a crackdown which killed more than 90 people.

The Senate's decision followed Monday's ruling by a United Nations court in favour of Cambodia in its dispute with Thailand over jurisdiction of land around an ancient temple.

The Shinawatra government fears the ruling will be used by nationalists to step up the Bangkok protests.

Thaksin promoted close ties with Cambodia when he was prime minister and his enemies have accused him of not defending Thai interests in relation to the border dispute, which has triggered sporadic clashes between Thai and Cambodian troops.

(Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Editing by Martin Petty and Gareth Jones)

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