Thailand's ruling junta said on Wednesday it had lifted martial law imposed just before a coup 10 months ago, but it invoked a security clause in the country's interim constitution that will mean the military will retain broad powers.
The martial law order banned all political gatherings and gave the military other wide-ranging powers. The order lifting martial law had been expected.
In a televised announcement, the junta said it would be replaced with a special security measure, known as Article 44, which allows security forces to continue to make arrests without a court warrant and to detain people without charge.
Article 44 of the interim constitution 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.
The televised statement said Article 44 would allow the military to "catch anyone and hand them over to an investigation team," to help with investigations and to search buildings in the interests of national security.
Thailand's main ally, the United States, said that while it welcomed the lifting of martial law, it was concerned by the invocation of Article 44.
A representative of the U.S. State Department said it was important that trials of civilians in military courts and detention without charge be ended and that individuals be allowed to exercise fundamental rights.
"We are concerned that moving to a security order ... will not accomplish any of these objectives," the representative said. "We would welcome the actual, full restoration of civil liberties in Thailand."
The junta said Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej approved lifting martial law throughout the country.
"There is no need to use martial law anymore ... The king has allowed martial law to be lifted from April 1," a Royal Gazette statement read out on national television said.
Article 44 has sparked concern among rights groups, political parties and some academics, who say it will give Prayuth unchecked authority.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the new security order would allow Prayuth "to issue orders without administrative, legislative, or judicial oversight or accountability."
“General Prayuth’s activation of constitution section 44 will mark Thailand’s deepening descent into dictatorship,” said Brad Adams, HRW Asia director. “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.”
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein said in a statement the decision 'leaves the door wide open to serious violations of fundamental human rights' and "annihilates freedom of expression."
"In effect, this means the sweeping away of all checks and balances on the power of the Government, rendering the lifting of martial law meaningless," he said.
However, ending martial law will come as a relief to tour operators who have repeatedly called for it to be lifted.
Tourism accounts for nearly 10 percent of Thailand's GDP and is still recovering from the effects of the coup and martial law, which stopped some tourists from being able to buy travel insurance.
The Thai military seized power on May 22, ousting the government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra after months of sometimes violent street protests in Bangkok in which nearly 30 people died.
Al Jazeera with Reuters