BANGKOK - Thailand's junta lifted martial law on Wednesday but replaced it with new orders retaining sweeping powers for the military, raising fears the regime is tightening its grip over the kingdom.
Special security measures - including a ban on political gatherings of more than five people - will continue to blanket the nation, which has seen civil liberties eroded since the army declared martial law and seized power from an elected government last May.
"As of now there is a royal order to lift martial law across the kingdom," said an announcement on military television, adding that the law will be replaced with new rules under the controversial Section 44 of the interim constitution.
The royal order comes a day after junta chief and premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha said he had asked the country's ailing 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej for permission to lift the law.
The new measures will address "any actions that will destroy peace and order, and national security, also any violations against the NCPO (junta)", said the announcement late Wednesday in a move that grants the military many similar powers as under martial law.
Political rallies of more than five people remain outlawed and the media still faces censorship with the new ruling saying authorities have the power to immediately stop the publication or presentation of any news "causing fear or distorted information".
Under martial law the army has been able to prosecute those accused of national security and royal defamation offences - Thailand has one of the world's strictest lese majeste laws - in military courts with no right of appeal.
On Tuesday Prayut said that while military courts would still be used for security offences post the lifting of martial law, convictions could be appealed to higher tribunals.
However the announcement Wednesday did not state whether the right to appeal had now been granted, or whether royal defamation cases would continue to be prosecuted through military courts.
'April Fool's day trick'?
Thailand's generals took over last May after months of often violent street protests that led to the ousting of Yingluck Shinawatra's democratically-elected government.
It marked the latest chapter in a decade of political conflict broadly pitting Bangkok's middle classes and the royalist elite - backed by parts of the military and judiciary - against pro-Shinawatra urban working-class voters and farmers from the country's north.
Critics say Section 44 allows Prayut to wield even greater powers than martial law.
"No one should be fooled by the lifting of martial law... activation of Section 44 puts Thailand in a deepening dictatorship," said Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch in a statement, adding Prayut now "becomes a strongman with ultimate power in his hands".
Under Section 44, the junta chief can unilaterally issue orders to suppress "any act that undermines public peace and order or national security, the monarchy, national economics or the administration of state affairs".
Political commentator Verapat Pariyawong described the move to replace martial law "with something even worse" as an "April Fool's day trick".
"The junta realises the situation is very unstable at the moment. They know they lack legitimacy. That is why they have to maintain such a tight grip," the London-based analyst told AFP by telephone.
Rights groups say basic freedoms have been severely curtailed since the military took over and lese majeste legislation has been increasingly used to stifle political opposition.
Lifting martial law is an attempt to "convince people the situation is getting better, but the real substance of it (new orders) is worse", Verapat added.
Thailand has been mired in political turmoil since Yingluck's older brother Thaksin was toppled in a previous coup nearly nine years ago.
The populist leader or parties allied to him have won every election since 2001 and the Bangkok elite - along with the military and swathes of the judiciary - have spent years trying to unpick their electoral prowess - culminating in last year's takeover.