Thai junta to replace martial law but retain key powers

AFP , Tuesday 31 Mar 2015

Thailand's junta chief said Tuesday he had asked the king for permission to lift martial law, after coming under pressure from foreign governments, but added that the military would retain sweeping powers.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha said the ailing 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej would now decide whether to lift martial law, which would be replaced with a new executive order.

"A new order (to replace martial law) will be issued very soon," the former army chief said.

Thailand has been under increased pressure from western allies, businesses and tour operators to lift martial law which was decreed shortly before the military seized power in a coup last May.

Major General Sunsern Kaewkumnerd, a deputy junta spokesman, told reporters Prayut felt the decision was necessary because "foreign countries were concerned over our use of martial law".

Under the law the army has been able to prosecute those accused of national security and royal defamation offences in military courts with no right of appeal.

The media has been muzzled while political gatherings of more than five people are banned.

In announcing his intention to lift martial law, Prayut gave his first public comments on what might replace it -- with clear indications that the military would retain significant powers.

The former army chief said he would use Article 44 of the junta's interim constitution to create the new order protecting Thailand's security.



Article 44 grants the junta chief power to make an executive order on national security issues without having to go through the military-stacked parliament.

Critics have said that order could end up being even more draconian than martial law.

Prayut said military courts would still be used for security offences but convictions could now be appealed to higher tribunals.

Security forces would continue to be able to make arrests without a court warrant, "otherwise it would be too late and a suspect could flee".

Prayut did not say whether cases under Thailand's royal defamation law -- one of the world's strictest -- would continue to be prosecuted through military courts, or whether the current ban on political gatherings would be lifted.

Prayut seized power last May after months of often violent street protests paralysed Yingluck Shinawatra's democratically elected government.

He has vowed to return power to an elected civilian government, but only once reforms to tackle corruption and curb the power of political parties are codified in a new constitution.

Critics say those reforms are aimed at neutering the power of Yingluck and her brother, ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ensuring that they and parties linked to them can never take office again.

Rights groups say basic freedoms have been severely eroded since the military took over and lese majeste legislation has been increasingly used to stifle political opposition.

Thailand has been rocked by a decade-long political crisis which broadly pits a Bangkok-based middle class and royalist elite -- backed by parts of the military and judiciary -- against urban working-class voters and farmers from the country's north loyal to the Shinawatras.

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