BANGKOK -- Thais thought they were seeing the long-awaited end to martial law, only to find that little has changed. The country's military government lifted martial law throughout the country on April 1, 10 months after it was imposed. In its place, however, the junta invoked Section 44 of the interim constitution, a measure of last resort that gives the military government sweeping powers.
The move has resulted in junta chief and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha wielding absolute authority under the pretext of enforcing security, triggering criticism from the international community, human rights groups and the public media. What is going on in Thailand, which should be aiming at a return to civilian rule?
Prayuth, who doubles as the head of the National Council for Peace and Order, issued the order intended to clamp down on anti-monarchy activists, activities disturbing public order and the like. It empowers the military to search houses and cars without a warrant and seize evidence in emergencies. The junta can also halt the distribution of news reports and publications that it judges disruptive to order, and suspects can be detained for up to seven days. Furthermore, the order bans political gatherings of five or more persons.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein warned against the junta's measures, saying, "I am alarmed at the decision to replace martial law with something even more draconian, which bestows unlimited power 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." He added, though, that he "would welcome the lifting of martial law."
The Thai military government was unusually quick to respond to the criticism. On the afternoon of April 7 it invited foreign envoys, representatives of international organizations and foreign media to the Foreign Ministry in Bangkok for a briefing by Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam. At the briefing, Wissanu stressed, "The emergency law and other existing laws proved ineffective in dealing with street clashes between pro- and anti-government forces, which led to the imposition of martial law and the military coup in May 2014."
He called on ambassadors and international organization representatives present to react calmly, claiming that the French constitution contains a clause similar to Section 44, which grants absolute authority to the head of NCPO.
On April 8, Prayuth held talks with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Bangkok. The highlight of the event was a comment made by Prayuth at a joint press conference after the meeting: "When a friend is in trouble, he needs moral support from his allies. Russia still chooses to be friends with Thailand today and we will ensure that the bond of friendship remains tight." The remark was a clear message sent to Western nations, which have expressed their concern over the junta's latest move.
Prayuth seems ready and willing to exercise Section 44. In his televised speech in the evening of April 3 referring to aviation safety, he noted, "Normally, the whole process [of reform] would be expected to take up to one and a half years. Under Section 44, the process can be shortened to three months." For his government, the interim constitution could be helpful in breaking the current impasse in the nuts and bolts of governing a country.
The junta is apparently pressed to produce results. It plans to proclaim a new constitution by September and hold a general election early next year to achieve a return to civilian rule. If the government can establish a solid track record by that time, it could retain a strong influence on Thai politics even after the country restores civilian rule. But not much time is left for the junta.
In particular, the military government is struggling to get the economy back in shape. Thailand's real gross domestic product in the last quarter of 2014 grew only 2.3% from a year earlier, underlining the slow economic recovery. Public investment, which should shore up the economy, has also been lackluster. The central bank's official forecast put Thailand's economic growth this year at 3.8%. However, an executive of the bank says the rate could fall to 2.5% if the implementation of public investment continues to be delayed.
Even if the powers assumed by the junta allow it to govern more effectively, it would not necessarily be a good thing for Thai citizens. It could allow the junta to make a case for exercising authority without the checks of a functioning judiciary. Can a dictatorship perform better than democracy or the rule of law? Prayuth appears to have embarked on a risky gamble in a bid to maintain the military's hold on power.