Originally published at Siam Voices on April 1, 2015 UPDATE [April 1, 2015]: Martial law has been officially lifted, according to a Royal Gazette statement televised (full PDF in Thai) on Wednesday evening at around 9.40pm local Bangkok time. As widely expected, Article 44 of the interim constitution is being referred to instead along with orders for every military officer with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant and above to "maintain peace" and those ranked below acting as their assistants, authorizing them to summon, detain suspects, confiscate and enter premises without a warrant. More details about Article 44 in the original story below and an English-language summary on the additional stipulations of the order can be read here by legal expert Verapat Pariyawong.
The good news: the Thai military junta may soon lift martial law, which has been in place for nearly a year. The bad news: it will be replaced by something worse that could give junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha much more power.
You know there's a problem when even Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NRHC) makes a stand. The normally tepid and toothless paper tiger of a human rights watchdog criticized the military junta’s plans to replace the still ongoing martial law with something even worse.
Martial law was declared before Thai military staged a coup almost a year ago, which gives them far-reaching powers to detain people without charges, send them to military court, ban public rallies and political seminars, and impose stringent media censorship. The interim constitution was put in place shortly thereafter in July 2014.
Needless to say, the military government’s handling - or rather mishandling - of civil liberties under martial law has drawn heavy criticism, especially from many foreign countries, who demand the repeal of it.
Developments this week suggest that martial law will likely be indeed revoked. However - and this is what has alarmed the NHRC, among others - the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta formally calls itself, plans to replace it with this:
Section 44. In the case where the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order is of opinion that it is necessary for the benefit of reform in any field and to strengthen public unity and harmony, or for the prevention, disruption or suppression of any act which undermines public peace and order or national security, the Monarchy, national economics or administration of State affairs, whether that act emerges inside or outside the Kingdom, the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order shall have the powers to make any order to disrupt or suppress regardless of the legislative, executive or judicial force of that order. In this case, that order, act or any performance in accordance with that order is deemed to be legal, constitutional and conclusive, and it shall be reported to the National Legislative Assembly and the Prime Minister without delay.
Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand (Interim), B.E. 2557 (2014) - Unofficial translation
In layman’s terms, the head of the junta General Prayuth Chan-ocha can issue any order he thinks is appropriate to ensure what he thinks is "national security”, ”public unity and harmony” or ”public peace and order”, without any judicial and political oversight other than to immediately report to the fully-appointed, military-dominated ersatz-parliament (the National Legislative Assembly) and the Prime Minister - who happens to be General Prayuth Chan-ocha as well. A practical and handy carte blanche.
General Prayuth himself said on Tuesday that he has asked King Bhumibol Adulyadej for permission to lift martial law. Though this is seen as something of a formality.
Ever since the hostile power takeover last May, the military government has been in tight control of nearly every aspect of the Thai political discourse (e.g. the junta’s constitutional drafters are wrapping up their work on a new full charter soon). So it is not surprising that they want to maintain that for the short and mid-term future, while at the same time trying to pacify the criticism against them by doing away one of the main issues.
The problem is that the same critics (including this blog) see right through this move and are now concerned that Article 44 gives Gen. Prayuth unprecedented, nigh absolute powers to do nearly everything and also for an indefinite amount of time, regardless of the junta’s much purported "reform roadmap" to return "true democracy" to Thailand sometime soon.
Many observers have drawn a comparison to Article 17 of the interim constitution of 1952, which contains some very uncanny parallels…
. . . whenever the Prime Minister deems it appropriate for the purpose of impressing or suppressing actions, whether of internal or external origin, which jeopardize the national security or the Throne or subvert or threaten law and order, the Prime Minister, by resolution of the Council of Ministers, is empowered to issue orders to take steps accordingly. Such orders or steps shall be considered legal.
—Article 17, Interim Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand, 2502 B.E. [1952 C.E.]
From: ”Article 17, a Totalitarian Movement, and a Military Dictatorship”, by Tyrell Haberkorn, Cultural Anthropology, September 23, 2014
This section was created during the dictatorship of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat (1958–1963) and later used frequently during the equally ruthless rule of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn (1963–1973), both of whom authorized a total of 76 executions based on this passage.
The junta is currently busy trying to convince people that history is not going to repeat itself. The chairman of the National Legislative Assembly Pornpetch Wichitcholchai has urged the Thai people to simply ”trust” Gen. Prayuth, while the deputy PM and effectively the junta’s number two, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, has assured that the law will only be used for protection against "ill-intended elements", and effectively told the NHRC to buzz off.
Meanwhile, his more cantankerous and (nominal) superior Gen. Prayuth had a hard time himself dispelling criticism and ended up chewing out yet another reporter at a press conference on Monday, singling out a Channel 7 journalist (an army-owned TV channel, no less) while insisting that he’s not angry - and that on heels of him quipping last week that he would "execute" critical reporters.
His promise to use the law "constructively" is to be met with skepticism, since civil liberties have taken a nosedive since the coup almost 11 months ago and Article 44 seems to be Gen. Prayuth’s catch-all solution to nearly all problems. He has already indicted that he will utilize it rather creatively, resolving issues concerning forest encroachment and apparent safety issues of Thailand-based airlines which have led several Asian countries to ban new flights after the International Civil Aviation Organisation raised concerns.
The question is not so much if Gen. Prayuth is going to (ab)use the power bestowed on him by Article 44 - the fact that he has these powers and he sees the need to still have them in the first place to cement his rule is more worrying.
To borrow a much-used phrase by a 19th-century English politician: ”Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”