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Turbulent Thailand

Thailand's Prayuth delays naming cabinet to wield ultimate weapon

Government further clamps down on opposition as dissidents ramp up pressure

BANGKOK -- Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's plans for a political makeover -- one in which he would be labeled as head of a quasi-civilian government rather than military junta strongman -- remain stalled as he continues to invoke Section 44 of the constitution.

Dubbed the "dictator's law," the directive gives him sweeping authoritarian powers.

Prayuth has used the directive over 190 times since staging the May 2014 coup as then-head of the Thai military. Continued use of it now has become a measure to gauge the country's transition toward civilian rule.

But Prayuth is not expected to give up this weapon until after the country hosts a summit of regional leaders from June 21-23, according to well-placed political sources.

Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam implied as much when pressed this week about forming the next government. The new cabinet will only start functioning after the 34th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit, said Wissanu, the junta's point man on the law.

According to a clause written into the interim constitution after the coup, this law with special powers remains in force till a new government to succeed the junta formally takes over. Thus, it is only until after the summit and Prayuth's quasi-civilian administration is sworn in that he loses use of Section 44.

But getting to this point is proving difficult for Prayuth, who will head a 19-party coalition in his second term as premier. According to insiders, members are still jockeying for ministerial seats in the coalition administration led by the pro-junta Palang Pracharath Party, which enjoys a slim majority in the 500-member lower house.

Prayuth's coalition is also scrambling to deal with a legal challenge about the status of 41 newly elected parliamentarians in its bloc. Chuan Leekpai, speaker of the parliament, has handed the Constitutional Court a petition filed by opposition lawmakers detailing a breach of election law by Prayuth allies about owning shares in a media company.

Under the 2017 constitution drafted by the junta's allies, owners or shareholders of media companies are barred from being members of parliament. This law is already weighing on Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, charismatic leader of the opposition Future Forward Party, as he reportedly had shares in such a company. Consequently, the court has suspended Thanathorn from being an MP until it makes a ruling.

Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit speaks to journalists in Bangkok on June 5.   © AP

Political observers are not surprised at Prayuth's slow pace, as it ensures he can invoke Section 44 in the event of protests or other challenges to his authority in the days leading up to summit.

But human rights groups and political critics are alarmed. To them, Prayuth's inaction amounts to "no end in sight for the dictatorship in Thailand."

"Gen. Prayuth maintains a host of repressive powers that allow him to prosecute dissidents, gag free speech, and put critics in secret military detention. They don't tolerate even the slightest hint of mockery," said Sunai Phasuk, senior Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch.

"This is an embrace of authoritarian rule, not a transition to democracy, as Gen. Prayuth starts his second term in office."

Sunai's point was driven home this week when schools across the country marked the annual Teacher's Day, a celebration when young students present floral arrangements as offerings of thanks and respect to their teachers.

Police and soldiers were deployed to schools where students had brought floral arrangements that were critical of the junta's subversion of democracy. Among them were floral designs with the three-fingered salute popularized by the "The Hunger Games," a 2012 science fiction film.

The salute has become a sign of resistance against the Prayuth regime since the coup, and has remained so despite a ban on displaying it.

According to Human Rights Watch, soldiers and police officers visited a high school in the northeastern province of Nong Khai and ordered students to delete all photos on their social media accounts regarding Teacher's Day celebrations.

The students had made "pedestal trays with satirical messages about the military dictatorship and the junta's manipulation of the general elections to prolong Prime Minister Prayuth's rule," the organization reported.

The crackdown adds to concerns about the shifting political winds in Southeast Asia. The democratic credentials of three countries -- Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand -- are being cited by political experts alarmed at ASEAN's drift away from democracy.

"We are noticing a worrying regional trend where authoritarian governments are relying on the legal books to undermine opposition lawmakers," noted the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a regional network of lawmakers, in a late May statement.

In pressing the case, group chair and Malaysian lawmaker Charles Santiago called on Thailand to drop "all charges against lawmakers, journalists, activists and others who have done nothing but express peaceful opinions."

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