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Asia

With new police powers, Thai military arrests hope for democracy

A new order granting soldiers the power to detain citizens is meant to silence government critics as crucial votes near, analysts say. Thailand's junta claims it is just making up for a lack of police.

Politicians and activists who are opposed to the constitution drafted by Thailand's military rulers are threatened by sweeping new powers that give soldiers the authorization to arrest and detain citizens, Thai political and legal experts told DW.

Last month, soldiers ranked sub-lieutenant and above in the army, navy and air force were given the authority to arrest anyone suspected of one of 27 crimes - including robbery, fraud and defamation - and detain them for up to a week.

The new ruling means soldiers will become "crime prevention and suppression officers," with the power to interrogate suspects. The military junta blamed a shortage of police officers for its decision.

'Democracy in retreat'

But Panuwat Panduprasert, a researcher of the military's role in Thailand at the University of Leeds, believes Thailand's military rulers are "anxious" about a referendum planned in August on the draft constitution and are seeking to "curb the influence of politicians and their associates" who may plan to protest against the proposed text.

Thai military coup

Thailand's military seized power in May 2014

"A failure to get the draft passed would be a major setback for the junta," Panduprasert told DW. "Although the military already has vast powers, the decision to grant itself even more authority shows that it will leave nothing to chance."

Several political parties in Thailand have denounced the planned new constitution, urging their supporters to reject it through the referendum. One party leader described the draft as "democracy in retreat."

"The junta is issuing so many restrictions that there will hardly be anything free and fair about the referendum at all," Panduprasert said.

Miltary-enforced stability

The latest constitution was drafted following the Thai military's coup d'etat in 2014, its 12th takeover since the end of absolute monarchic rule in the country in 1932. Since then, 18 constitutions or charters have been implemented - an average of one every four years.

The constitution was unveiled last month after an earlier draft was rejected last September. But the current outline was immediately criticized by many leading politicians for allowing military generals to retain too strong of grip on power.

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Going up against Thai military government

Former Thai government legal advisor Verapat Pariyawong believes the new military powers will help "lead the Thai public in general to become more accustomed to the even more deeply entrenched role of the military in Thai politics."

The new powers will "weaken the prospect of a return to democracy," he added. Thailand's military rulers have promised to hold full elections in 2017.

An 'honest' military

Human rights groups have condemned the latest power grab by the military, saying it highlights the contradiction between the Thai junta's words and actions.

"Instead of paving the way for a return to democratic rule, the Thai junta has broadened its powers to do almost anything it wants," said Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

The rights group said the incursion by the military into the traditional jurisdiction of law enforcement "provides untrained military officials with broadly and ambiguously worded powers of law enforcement," adding that the powers would likely lead to abuse.

Political analyst Panduprasert says the new order will further marginalize the Thai police, who the military accuses of being aligned to major political and business interests.

"My interviews with several army officials revealed they tend to view police officers as corrupt and willing to obey the will of politicians in contrast to the 'honest, upright military officers'," he told DW.

The royal question

Some experts are concerned that the widening of the army's remit could be linked to fears of a potential power vacuum related to the looming royal succession.

Thailand's 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej has always been a pillar of Thai politics. But he has been in declining health for several years.

His son and heir Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is seen by some as unfit to succeed him, given his links to exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinowatra, who was removed from power by the military in 2006.

Legal analyst Pariyawong believes the wider military powers could be "part of mechanism aimed at creating a 'transitional guarantee'" not just in terms of deciding who succeeds King Bhumibol but also preventing Thaksin's Pheu Thai party from playing a major role in future Thai politics.

Thaksin and his sister Yingluck - who was prime minister from 2011 until the military coup in 2014 - have built a strong voter base among poorer and rural Thais, challenging the country's traditional urban and royalist-supported political players.

Elections next year?

Politicians from all sides are equally skeptical about the Thai military's plans to hold elections next year. Prime Minister and former army officer Prayut Chan-o-cha has vowed that the vote will take place whether the draft constitution passed the referendum or not.

"I strongly doubt if there will be a meaningful election that leads to a representative civilian government," Pariyawong said. He pointed "various counter-democratic overriding rules" put in place by the junta that would prevent a return to civilian rule.

Panduprasert believes there is only a 50-50 chance that elections will be held next year.

"The junta is governing pretty comfortably and if it wants to maintain its grip, no one in Thailand looks strong enough to stop them," he said.

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