Some 10 months after staging a coup, Thailand's military-installed premier says he plans to end martial law. But he also seeks to invoke a constitutional provision granting him sweeping powers, as Paul Chambers explains.
On March 31, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha announced that he requested King Bhumibol Adulyadej's permission to lift martial law, which has been enforced nationwide since for the past 10 months. Prayuth, who chairs the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta, said he would replace the Martial Law Act of 1914 with section 44 of the 2014 interim constitution, which would allow him to issue orders without administrative, legislative, or judicial oversight or accountability.
The move has sparked concern among rights groups and scholars who argue that the article 44 effectively provides the ruling junta with "unlimited and unaccountable powers." Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said General Prayuth's activation of the constitution's section 44 "will mark Thailand's deepening descent into dictatorship." Under section 44, Prayuth, as the NCPO chairman, can issue orders and undertake acts without regard to the human rights implications, HRW said.
Thailand is currently under the rule of a military junta following last year's coup. Prayuth, the man behind the coup, has argued that the military takeover was necessary to avoid further bloodshed following months of political turmoil in the country pitting anti-government demonstrators against supporters of the administration of PM Yingluck Shinawatra.
Chambers: 'Article 44 of the interim constitution does not make the junta or junta leader accountable to anyone for anything'
In a DW interview, Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai, talks about the powers Article 44 grants the PM and explains why the end of martial law might be seen as an attempt by Prayuth to consolidate military power.
DW: How much power would Article 44 grant the PM and ruling junta?
Paul Chambers: I don't see a change in dictatorial powers. The only difference is that whereas the Martial Law Act of 1914 grants total authority - for a time unspecified - to the army commander, Article 44 specifically grants such authority to the NCPO junta leader. The difference is not quantity of power - because the military courts can squelch all dissenting martial law - but who has the power.
We are talking about the NCPO leader versus the army commander. From this you can interpret that changes in the Martial Law Act to use of Article 44 might be seen as an attempt to consolidate military power by Prayuth Chan-ocha, given that he is the junta leader.
How does the PM justify the end of martial law and the implementation of this article?
Thailand's justice system is currently under the control of military courts only. The highest court of appeal of these military courts is the junta itself. Any legal justice right now in Thailand is only what the military says it is.
In such a situation, the NCPO hardly needs to consider rule of law to Thailand's repressed civil society. The point is to justify the sustained premiership of Prayuth to those who might lead a counter-coup or those in the highest arch-royalist institutions of power such as the Privy Council.
Who drafted Article 44 of the Thai Constitution?
Article 44 was drafted in the interim constitution which was enacted by the military junta in July 2014. It is a virtual copy of similar acts copied into military-enacted temporary charters from 1959, 1968, 1976, 1977, 1991 and 2006. In other words, security acts such as this one have been enacted by various military juntas in Thailand and they are nothing new.
Does the article stipulate who would be held accountable for any misuse of power?
Article 44 of the interim constitution does not make the junta or junta leader accountable to anyone for anything. Of course, as Thailand is a kingdom, the junta is accountable to Thailand's monarch.
What other measures is the junta likely to implement?
The junta will also want to make sure that an amnesty for coup-makers is put into the permanent constitution, which has yet to be passed. I expect also that the ruling NCPO will enshrine itself to continue to exist beyond the end of the actual premiership of Prayuth Chan-ocha.
That way, the junta can carry on alongside, but above Thai democracy. Finally, as with Article 135 within the Turkish constitution, which has, in the past, legitimized military interventions to topple civilian governments, I expect something similar to be put into the soon-to-be-proclaimed permanent constitution.
What does this say about Thailand's democratic prospects in the near future?
The fact that Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha needs to engage in these actions of utilizing Article 44, in place of the Martial Law Act, tells us that he is a scared man - fearful of a counter-coup.
'The junta will want to make sure that an amnesty for coup-makers is put into the permanent constitution'
The Martial Law Act, as it stands, already gives the junta enough clout to do and act as it wants toward Thai people with near impunity. This is especially true given that only opaque military courts, with their lack of appeals outside of the armed forces, are being used to interpret rule of law.
Until Thais are allowed to democratically work toward drafting a constitution rather than reluctantly accept one imposed upon them by the military will democracy have a chance to return to Thailand. Yes, the junta has loudly proclaimed that it will bring democracy back to Thailand. But the democracy proposed by Prayuth's military clique, and its civilian allies, is a diluted charade democracy where the military could continue to exert enormous influence behind the scenes.
Paul Chambers is Director of Research at the Thailand-based Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai.