BANGKOK – Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha’s proposal to replace martial law with Article 44 of the interim constitution, which grants him unrestrained power to intervene in national affairs, has been met with a tide of criticism from voices across the political spectrum.
The junta chairman told reporters on Friday he was considering the swap, presumably to assuage international criticism about martial law, which he imposed shortly before leading a military coup as army chief last May.
Anti-coup protesters unfurled a banner denouncing Gen. Prayuth as a dictator at a flash protest on 1 June 2014.
Over the past ten months, Gen. Prayuth has come under consistent criticism from international human rights groups and Western democracies for using the 100-year-old law to detain individuals without charges, search houses without warrants, ban political protests, and try dissidents in martial courts among other human rights violations.
Yet politicians and legal experts in Thailand appear united in their view that the new plan – replacing martial law with Article 44 – will only expand the junta’s ability to suppress dissent and curb civil liberties.
Under Article 44 of the interim charter penned by the junta after the coup, the junta chairman “shall have the powers to make any order to disrupt or suppress” any act that “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.”
Furthermore, “In this case, that order, act or any performance in accordance with that order is deemed to be legal, constitutional and conclusive.”
The constitutional clause does not require the junta chairman to inform the government in advance of issuing the order, but simply t0 notify the National Legislative Assembly "without delay."
"The government probably wants to fix its image and reduce pressure from the international community, but the fact is, it won't be like that," said Yodpol Thepsithar, a law lecturer at Naresuan University. "Section 44 will be even worse, because it gives full power solely to the Prime Minister. He can order anything, from seizing assets and execution, without any need for proof [of guilt]."
Many commentators have compared Article 44 to a clause in Thailand’s 1959 charter that granted the leader of the 1957 coup, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, similarly sweeping powers to impose decrees that would be considered lawful by virtue of their issuance. Sarit ruled over Thailand for seven years, and invoked the clause to publicly execute political activists and suspected communists and criminals.
“[Article 44] can be extended indefinitely, giving the junta chairman absolute power, like Section 17 under the era of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat,” said Anusorn Iamsa-ard, a spokesperson for the Pheu Thai Party, which controlled the government toppled in the May 2014 coup.
Using a common Thai idiom, he warned that replacing martial law with Article 44 “may be like running away from a tiger into a crocodile.”
The deputy chairman of the rival Democrat Party, Sathit Pitutecha, also expressed concern about the proposal, which he said “will destroy the confidence of both domestic and foreign communities, especially the international communities, who will only see Thailand as more of a dictator.”
Yet Sathit was careful to draw a distinction between his party’s stance and what he percieved to be the motivation of the Pheu Thai politicians speaking against the plan.
“I speak with good will, unlike those who invoked the idiom of 'running away from tiger into crocodile,' but may have been speaking based on political motivations,” said Sathit. “Gen. Prayuth has to fix the problem at the right place. He has to deal with the chaos inciters, the people who threw a grenade at the Criminal Court, and the Redshirt network. If the investigation reveals that the inciters have some existing cases while they requested bail from the court, just tell the court to cancel the bail, and throw them into prison. That's all.”
Sathit was referring to a grenade attack on a courthouse in Bangkok earlier this month that authorities say was organized by supporters of the Redshirt movement, who backed the Pheu Thai government toppled in the coup.
Gen. Prayuth refused to comment yesterday on when martial law will be revoked. Responding to a reporter who asked when Article 44 will be imposed, the junta chairman said “it will happen when it does.”