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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Anti-government protesters brought Thailand's parliament to a halt on Friday, surrounding the complex and forcing the speaker to postpone debate on a bill that could clear the way for the return of a prime minister ousted in a coup six years ago.
About 2,500 yellow-shirted protesters of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a royalist middle-class movement instrumental in bringing down two governments, blocked cars from entering the compound and forced some members to climb through side entrances to attend the session.
The protesters say the reconciliation bill amounts to an amnesty for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who in September 2006 was ousted in a military coup and later fled the country. He is now in self-imposed exile, avoiding prison on a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated.
His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, leads the government.
"I have ordered the meeting to be postponed indefinitely to preserve the atmosphere and peace in the country," parliamentary speaker Somsak Kiatsuranont told reporters, as hundreds of riot police secured the area.
"We'll have to analyse the situation before determining when the meeting will be held again."
The scene called to mind protests in 2008 by anti-Thaksin yellow shirts who barricaded the prime minister's office for three months and shut down Bangkok's airports for a week -- steps that preceded the collapse of two pro-Thaksin governments.
The number of protesters this time was far smaller than the roughly 100,000 who assembled to oppose - and help depose - past pro-Thaksin governments.
But Friday's unrest and dramatic scenes inside parliament earlier in the week in which opposition politicians clashed with the speaker of the house before police intervened suggest Thailand could be in for a new phase of political volatility.
Debate over the bill, which proposes an amnesty for anyone guilty of crimes related to the six-year political crisis, could resume on June 6, Somsak's office said. The protesters plan to disperse for the weekend and return on Tuesday, and then stay until the legislation is either defeated or dropped.
"If I say I'm not concerned, I would be wrong," said Yingluck, whose government won elections last year by a landslide with support from the rival red-shirt protest movement, drawn mostly from the rural and urban poor.
"I am concerned but we need to be calm," she told Reuters after the parliamentary debate was scrapped. "This situation I think is different from situations in the past because people have learned that all the fighting and the coup are not good and they have suffered for six years, so they won't do this again."
EXPERTS AT OUSTING
It is unclear how much public support the yellow-shirt movement has, so soon after the violence of April-May 2010, when the previous military-backed government of Abhisit Vejjajiva clashed with thousands of pro-Thaksin red-shirt protesters. Ninety-one people were killed, mostly protesters, and many more were wounded.
The yellow-shirt movement is now "narrower but still deep", said Chulalongkorn University political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak. "If the bill's rammed through parliament, we can expect more tension and potential clashes," he said. "Then it will depend on the reaction of the army and the establishment."
At the heart of the crisis is Thaksin, a twice-elected populist leader revered by the poor and reviled by the royalist elite. From his villa in Dubai, the billionaire exerts enormous influence over his sister's government, often conferring with groups of ministers or supporters by web-cam.
The protesters want him to serve time in jail.
"If they don't listen to us, the PAD are experts at getting rid of prime ministers," Chamlong Srimuang, a yellow shirt leader, said from a makeshift stage, as protest leaders took turns denouncing the government's national unity proposals.
Financial markets appear concerned about the potential for unrest, which Bank of Thailand Governor Prasarn Trairatvorakul said this week could deal a new blow to the convalescing economy following devastating floods last year.
(Reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Jason Szep)