Thai leader calls for ending martial law but seeks sweeping new powers

Thailand's coup leader calls for taking on sweeping powers in place of martial law

Thailand's coup leader-turned-prime minister on Tuesday called for an end to martial law, to be replaced with sweeping authority for himself that human rights advocates likened to absolute power with impunity.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a general who retired from the army after leading the coup 10 months ago, sent the appeal for revision of the military leadership's authorities to King Bhumibol Adulyadej for the formality of royal approval.

Martial law imposed after the May 22 coup has heavily restricted public gatherings, exposed rare protesters to harsh punishment and muzzled the media.

Prayuth's proposal to replace military order with Article 44 of the interim constitution would empower him, as chief of the National Council for Peace and Order, to exercise the powers of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government and issue any edict he considers necessary to maintain security and public order.

Under the new authority sought -- and expected -- from the king, the military could arrest people without warrants and detain them for as many as seven days without charges. Bans on public assembly by five or more people would also likely be retained, as would the harsh treatment of students who have dared to protest or mock the military leaders, rights advocates said.

“Article 44 violates the fundamental pillars of the rule of law and human rights, including equality, accountability and predictability," Wilder Tayler, secretary-general of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists, said in a statement urging the Thai rulers to end martial law and restore elected governance.

Tayler said Article 44 would be little improvement over martial law, which has been imposed off and on in Thailand since 1914 and at least "has a degree of clarity to its scope and application."

Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch called Article 44 "ultimate power without accountability."

The proposed shift of authority to the prime minister, who was a career army officer until last year, was applauded by his military partners in the ruling junta and by key economic figures in the country. Prasarn Trairatvorakul, governor of the Bank of Thailand, the country's central bank, said the invocation of Article 44 was necessary because there are "still many undercurrents requiring the government to have special tools to handle the situation."

Lt. Gen. Kampanart Ruddit, commander of the government's peacekeeping forces, told the Bangkok Post that he was "duty-bound" to comply with any orders of Prayuth, whom he credited with commitment to creating conditions of calm that will allow the country "to move forward."

Last year's coup put an end to months of civil unrest in Bangkok that disrupted traffic and the smooth functioning of government as protesters blocked key intersections in the capital to vent their opposition to the leadership of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. She was forced out of office two weeks before the coup and was charged this month with "negligence in political office" stemming from a rice subsidy program used to woo the votes of poor farmers in the north of the country.

Thailand's tourism-dependent economy has taken a pounding since the protests against Yingluck were sparked in October 2013, when her Pheu Thai Party attempted to pass an amnesty bill that would have allowed her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to return from exile. He fled to the United Arab Emirates in 2008 to evade a prison sentence after his conviction on corruption charges.

Thailand has been wracked by political unrest for much of the past seven years, and the coup leaders have said their deposing of elected government was necessary to restore order so that business and industry to function.

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