The Thai junta on Thursday faced international criticism for doing away with martial law a day earlier but consolidating its power instead, by invoking an interim constitutional provision that gives Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha unfettered authority.
The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed grave concern at the executive order, which came after Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej approved it on Wednesday.
Article 44 of the interim constitution gives the junta – formally known as the National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO) – sweeping law enforcement powers over the civilian population, the Geneva-based OHCHR said Thursday.
“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,” U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a statement.
“The NCPO Order issued on Wednesday also annihilates freedom of expression,” the U.N official added, referring to clauses under Article 44.
According to OHCHR, these empower the military to curb the press and censor media content perceived as threatening national security or public order, as well as undermine freedom of public assembly by punishing groups of five or more people who gather for protests.
“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,” Zeid said.
‘Those who think badly’
Since last May, when the junta imposed martial law and seized power from the civilian-led government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Prayuth’s regime has faced mounting international pressure to lift the law and move his country back to civilian rule.
The United States urged the Thai military to put an end to trials of civilians in military courts and detention without charge, and to let people express themselves freely.
"We are concerned that moving to a security order under Article 44 will not accomplish any of these objectives," Agence France-Presse quoted a U.S. State Department official as saying.
The junta denies that it is steering the country toward dictatorship.
"If you look at the details of Article 44 you will see that it is not stronger than martial law," Gen. Udomdej Sitabutr, the Thai army chief, told Reuters.
"It will be a positive thing and those who have good intentions will not be affected," he said. “This law is to protect against those who think badly because there are still people who think differently.”
According to Reuters, the military had a limited presence on the streets of Thailand during 10 months of martial law. But soldiers were allowed to detain hundreds of critics of the military-controlled government without charge, it said.
Commentators in Thailand predict that violations of civil liberties by the military will linger, if not increase, under the new executive order.
"Section 44 is actually worse (than martial law)," Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a constitutional expert at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, told AFP.
"When they ask for the martial law to be lifted, what the public is really asking for is the return of basic rights and liberties to Thais. Prayuth fails to understand that," he said.
By BenarNews staff with details from news reports