Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha yesterday sought royal approval for lifting martial law, which was imposed shortly before the coup in May last year, and replacing it with Article 44 of the interim charter.
The move was welcomed by the business sector, but a human-rights lawyer criticised it, saying conflicts of interest would persist under Article 44 as the prime minister would have more absolute power.
Prayut said after chairing a weekly Cabinet meeting that his power under Article 44 would be mainly used to arrest and detain quickly those violating security laws and committing severe crimes.
As head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), Prayut assured the public that ordinary folks had nothing to fear. He added that he was not doing it to remain in power but to enable the Kingdom to move forward "more conveniently".
"Don't just talk about freedom or democracy alone. I am [for] democracy. If I am not democratic, you people won't be around like this with me," he told reporters. "If you have done nothing wrong, why should you be worried?
"I need to use power under Article 44 of the provisional constitution to allow the authorities quickly to conduct searches and arrests without having to wait for a court warrant."
There would have to be five to six orders issued under Article 44, he said.
The maximum period for military detention without charge under Article 44 would be seven days, just like under martial law, and after the period the detainee would either be released or turned over to the police and prosecutors, depending on whether the person had violated any security law.
Under Article 44, civilians facing a military court will have the right to fight through the appeal and supreme military courts system. Absolute power under Article 44 will also be used to pass legislation that the previous government had failed to and the National Legislative Assembly may not have the time to or finds it difficult to pass.
Anon Nampa, a key member of the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, reacted negatively to the latest development, saying conflicts of interest persisted.
All military court judges, said Anon, are under the chain of command of the Ministry of Defence and not truly independent. Defence Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan is also the deputy head of the NCPO, while those facing military courts for violating security law are opposed to the NCPO, Anon noted.
"Why don't they put these people through an ordinary court if they truly believe it's the same?" Anon asked.
As for Prayut's promise to use Article 44 to detain people without charge for no more than seven days, Anon said the junta leader could in the end extend that, given the absolute power he holds under Article 44.
Article 44 little understood
Meanwhile Isara Vongkusolkit, chairman of the Board of Trade and the Thai Chamber of Commerce, said the cancellation of martial law should create better sentiment for private enterprises, but would not help tourism, as the sector has been affected by other factors, mainly volatile currencies.
He said the tourism structure had been changed to rely on the global economy.
Darren Buckley, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand, said Article 44 was little understood by foreigners and the effectiveness of the changes in law on the confidence of tourists would depend on how the article is used by the prime minister, who now has the de facto power to control many things.
"The good news is that tourism has been increasing, and that is a positive sign. The fact that martial law can be lifted is also a positive sign, not just for tourists but also a positive sign that the government feels [that] perhaps the situation in Thailand is much more stable now," he said.
Ittirit Kinglake, president of the Tourism Council of Thailand, said tourists - especially from Western countries - would no longer worry about travelling to the country, as the government was lifting martial law.
"A new problem regarding concerns over civil-aviation safety is expected to hit tourism as well as the country's image. It needs to be solved as soon as possible," he said.
Nats Santivipanon, head of brand and communications of AXA Insurance, said that in principle insurance companies overseas would offer coverage to policyholders who travel in countries that are not under martial law.
Thai General Insurance Association chairman Anon Vangvasu said Article 44 was unlike martial law, as the latter affected insurance coverage for foreign travellers, adding that foreign countries are more concerned about martial law as it is seen as unsafe.
Article 44 is likely to give more power to the prime minister, but he said Article 44 was better than martial law as the latter covered the whole country. Under Article 44, the prime minister might consider each case individually, he said.
ML Jiriseth Sukhavasti, chief life officer at AIA Thailand, said international markets only knew about martial law, as insurance companies will not cover customers who travel to countries with this law. Therefore, even though Thailand has replaced martial law with Article 44, foreign insurance companies will cover their policyholders who travel in Thailand.
What we know so far from Prayut about the use of Article 44:
- Search, arrest and detain people without charge for a period of no more than seven days like under martial law, specifically for people who violate security laws or |committing severe crimes;
- Enable civilians facing military court to fight through the appeal and supreme military courts;
- Passing of laws.