Shortly after lifting martial law, Thailand's junta has granted itself sweeping powers by invoking a constitutional provision. Rights organizations slam the new powers as "even more draconian" than martial law.
On April 1, the government of Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha was granted permission by Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej to revoke a 10-month-old martial law, which had been imposed when the military ousted the government of PM Yingluck Shinawatra in a coup following months of political turmoil.
But the country's ruling junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), chaired by Prayuth, immediately issued a new order under Article 44 of the country's interim constitution securing widespread powers for the military.
The new decree allows the PM to issue orders without administrative, legislative, or judicial oversight or accountability. Furthermore, it foresees a ban on political gatherings of more than five people, and gives the military authority to arrest and prosecute civilians. It also gives the government power to gag any publication deemed to cause "security concerns."
The new decree allows Prayuth to issue orders without administrative, legislative, or judicial oversight or accountability
The move has triggered widespread concerns among scholars, activists and international organizations that say Article 44 bestows the ruling military clique with "unlimited and unaccountable powers."
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in a statement that although he warmly welcomes the lifting of martial law, he is "alarmed" at the decision to replace it 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," he added.
International human rights groups have also chipped in with criticism at the government's latest action, with Amnesty International (AI) calling the move "little more than a cynical exercise in the preservation of military power."
"General Prayuth has simply granted himself and his army officers sweeping powers to continue violating the rights to liberty, freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly," criticized Richard Bennett, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific Director.
"The international community must not be fooled by this cynical exercise in the preservation of military power. Nothing has changed - this is an attempt to cast a veil over its determination to continue using military might to crush dissent," Bennett underlined.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has a similar view. Brad Adams, HRW's Asia director, said General Prayuth's activation of the constitution's Article 44 "will mark Thailand's deepening descent into dictatorship."
Although Article 44 was included in the interim constitution that was enacted by the military junta in July 2014, the history of such provisions in Thailand goes back a long way. Similar provisions were incorporated into the country's laws by various military juntas in the past.
Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai, says that the Article 44 does not change anything in terms of the dictatorial powers enjoyed by the military government.
"The only difference is that whereas the Martial Law Act of 1914 grants total authority to the army commander, Article 44 specifically grants such authority to the NCPO junta leader.
The use of Article 44 therefore might be seen as an attempt to consolidate military power by Prayuth Chan-ocha, given that he is the junta leader," Chambers told DW.
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.