Thailand's military-installed prime minister said Tuesday he plans to lift martial law 10 months after staging a coup — but will invoke a special security measure, known as Article 44, that some critics say is more draconian.
The development has sparked concern among rights groups and others who say the junta-imposed constitution’s Article 44 — which Thai media have referred to as “the dictator law” — gives Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha unchecked authority over all three branches of government and power over all aspects of law and order, as well as absolving him of any legal responsibility for his actions.
“Article 44 essentially means Prayuth is the law. He can order the detention of anyone without charge, without having to put the person on trial and for as long as he desires,” Pravit Rojanaphruk, an outspoken columnist for The Nation newspaper, wrote Tuesday.
Prayuth said he had asked the ailing 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej for permission to lift martial law. The monarch's approval is considered a formality.
“We are now waiting for the king to royally approve the disuse of martial law,” Prayuth said. “We have prepared Article 44 and will use it soon.”
Prayuth has faced growing pressure to scrap martial law, which places the military in charge of public security nationwide and has been criticized as a deterrent to tourists and foreign investors.
Prayuth, who did not give a time frame for when martial law would be lifted, clearly indicated that the military would retain significant powers. The former army chief said he would use Article 44 to issue a new order protecting Thailand's security.
Article 44 grants Prayuth power to make executive orders on national security issues without having to go through the military-stacked parliament. Prayuth said military courts would still be used for security offenses but convictions could now be appealed to higher tribunals.
Security forces would continue to be able to make arrests without a court warrant, Prayuth added. He did not say, however, whether cases under Thailand's royal defamation law — which forbids offending the royal family and is punishable with up to 15 years in prison — would continue to be prosecuted through military courts, or whether the current ban on political gatherings would be lifted.
'Deepening of dictatorship'
Human rights groups expressed alarm that Article 44 could allow Prayuth to wield even greater powers.
"The world won't be fooled. This is a deepening of dictatorship," said Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch.
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a Geneva-based rights group, also expressed strong reservations about Article 44.
"Article 44 violates the fundamental pillars of the rule of law and human rights, including equality, accountability, and predictability," ICJ's secretary general, Wilder Tayler, said in a statement posted on its website. He said the statute would not be a real improvement over martial law, which he said should be lifted in favor of returning to civilian rule.
Prayuth sought to downplay such concerns, telling reporters he would use Article 44 "constructively" to solve security issues.
"Don't worry," he told reporters after a Cabinet meeting. "If you're not doing anything wrong, there's no need to be afraid."
Prayuth imposed martial law and seized power last May following the ousting of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's democratically elected government after months of often-violent street protests.
Prayuth's announcement that he was seeking to replace martial law with Article 44 was the latest twist in a decade of political conflict broadly pitting a Bangkok-based middle class and royalist elite — backed by parts of the military and judiciary — against pro-Shinawatra urban working-class voters, and farmers from the country's north.
Prayuth has vowed to return power to an elected civilian government, but only once reforms to tackle corruption and curb the power of political parties are codified in a new constitution.
Critics say those reforms are aimed at curtailing the power of Yingluck and her brother, ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ensuring that they and parties linked to them can never take office again.
Al Jazeera and wire services