BANGKOK — Thailand's junta chairman has brushed off concerns about Article 44, a constitutional clause invoked last night that grants him near-absolute power.
"No problem," Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters today when he was asked to comment on the Article, which he used for the first time last night after revoking martial law.
Pressed by journalists to comment, the general waved his hand and said, "What? It's nothing. It's been there all along. I have always had it, you know, Article 44."
Gen. Prayuth made another brief comment to reporters earlier in the day, saying he has been "in good mood" since he replaced martial law with the Article last night.
Article 44 of the interim charter, which was penned by the junta shortly after the May 2014 coup, authorizes Gen. Prayuth to unilaterally intervene in the face of any perceived threats to national security, the economy, the monarchy, or state affairs. Any order Gen. Prayuth promulgates through Article 44 will be deemed legal and binding, the clause states.
Citing the Article, Gen. Prayuth issued fourteen orders last night retaining key powers granted to the military under martial law, such as soldiers’ authority to detain suspects without charge, censor the media, and ban political gatherings.
Junta leaders said martial law was repealed last night – after nearly eleven months – to ease international concerns and boost tourism, but critics warn that Article 44's broad language grants the junta chairman even greater powers with essentially no checks.
"Thailand’s friends abroad should not be fooled by this obvious sleight of hand by the junta leader to replace martial law with a constitutional provision that effectively provides unlimited and unaccountable powers," said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director.
The UN's Human Rights agency also released a statement on Thursday expressing "alarm" at Gen. Prayuth's adoption of "potentially unlimited and draconian powers."
"Normally I would warmly welcome the lifting of martial law," the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in the statement. "But I am alarmed at the decision to replace martial law with something even more draconian, which bestows unlimited powers on the current Prime Minister without any judicial oversight at all. This clearly leaves the door wide open to serious violations of fundamental human rights."
However, government officials insist that Article 44 will only be used "constructively" and "creatively" to protect national security and swiftly solve other urgent problems, such as human trafficking and land encroachment.
"Article 44 will be used only for the interest of the public," Anusit Kunakorn, sec-gen of the National Security Council, said this morning. "This government is not using its power to restrict freedom. We should wait and see what kind of benefits it will bring, now that the law is being used."
Deputy chairman of the junta, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, also dismissed concerns that Article 44 may raise alarms internationally.
"I don't know, I'm not a foreigner," Gen. Prawit said, after a reporter asked whether he believes foreigners will react negatively to the invocation of the law. "I am not worried. I have explained it. If you are worried, so be it. But if you are Thais, you shouldn't be worried."
"I am confident that Article 44 will create peace in Thailand," he added.
Gen. Prayuth, who toppled a democratically-elected government last May, is currently both chairman of the junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), and Prime Minister of the interim government he appointed.
Critics 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 power. Sarit ruled over Thailand with an iron first for seven years and invoked the clause to order summary executions.