Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha is seeking to invoke a constitutional provision that would give him unlimited powers without safeguards against human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said.
On March 31, 2015, Prayuth announced that he has requested King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s permission to lift martial law, which has been enforced nationwide since the May 2014 military coup. 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.
“General Prayuth’s activation of constitution section 44 will mark Thailand’s deepening descent into dictatorship,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Thailand’s friends abroad should not be fooled by this obvious sleight of hand by the junta leader to replace martial law with a constitutional provision that effectively provides unlimited and unaccountable powers.”
Under section 44, Prayuth as the NCPO chairman can issue orders and undertake acts without regard to the human rights implications. Section 44 states that “where the head of the NCPO is of opinion that it is necessary for the benefit of reforms in any field, or to strengthen public unity and harmony, or for the prevention, disruption or suppression of any act that undermines public peace and order or national security, the monarchy, national economics or administration of State affairs,” the head of the NCPO is empowered to “issue orders, suspend or act as deemed necessary.… Such actions are completely legal and constitutional.” No judicial or other oversight mechanism exists to examine use of these powers. Prayuth only needs to report his decisions and actions to the National Legislative Assembly and to the prime minister, a position he also occupies, after they are taken.
Prayuth has previously stated that orders issued under section 44 would allow the military to arrest and detain civilians. Since the May 2014 coup, the junta has detained hundreds of politicians, activists, journalists, and others who they accuse of supporting the deposed Yingluck Shinawatra government, disrespecting or offending the monarchy, or being involved in anti-coup protests and activities. Military personnel have interrogated many of these detainees in secret and unauthorized military facilities without providing access to their lawyers or ensuring other safeguards against mistreatment.
The NCPO has continually refused to provide information about people in secret detention. The risk of enforced disappearance, torture, and other ill treatment significantly increases when detainees are held incommunicado in military detention. However, there have been no indications of any official inquiry by Thai authorities into reports of torture and mistreatment in military custody.
The use of military courts, which lack independence and fail to comply with international fair trial standards, to try civilians is likely to continue under section 44, Human Rights Watch said. Three days after seizing power on May 22, 2014, the NCPO issued its 37th order, which replaced civilian courts with military tribunals for some offenses – including actions violating penal code articles 107 to 112, which concern lese majeste crimes, and crimes regarding national security and sedition as stipulated in penal code articles 113 to 118. Individuals who violate the NCPO’s orders have also been subjected to trial by military court. Hundreds of people, most of them political dissidents, have been sent to trials in military courts since the coup.
The imposition of section 44 means the junta’s lifting of martial law is unlikely to lead to improvement of respect for human rights in Thailand. The junta will have legal justification to continue its crackdown on those exercising their fundamental rights and freedoms. Criticism of the government can still be prosecuted, peaceful political activity banned, free speech censored and subject to punishment, and opposition of military rule not permitted.
“General Prayuth’s action to tighten rather than loosen his grip on power puts the restoration of democratic civilian rule further into the future,” Adams said. “Concerted pressure from Thailand’s allies is urgently needed to reverse this dangerous course.”