Thailand's vicious circle of martial law, Article 44, 'democracy'

Article 44 of the interim constitution gives Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is also junta chief, power over all aspects of government, law and order.

But Premier Prayut Chan-o-chan insists that Article 44 of the interim Constitution had been with us all along after the coup last May. Why the fuss now?

Well, the fuss was always there. Human rights activists have been insisting that anything that smacks of a violation of basic rights and freedom of expression must be eliminated. But those calls had always focused on martial law, not Article 44. That's why the battle cry is now against Article 44.

Even if the article were lifted - which isn't even remotely possible under the circumstances - the battle would still continue. Hidden somewhere would be clauses that offered a wide range of powers to the military and police authorities on security issues, related one way or the other to the equivalent of the Internal Security Act. Don't forget that before martial law there was the state of emergency. And before that there was the Security Act.

None of these is acceptable, of course, even if the coup leader sticks by his pledge to apply his absolute power "constructively". He showed how this might be done by using his all-embracing authority under Article 44 to restructure civil aviation management, after an audit by the International Civil Aviation Organisation led to suspension of some flights from Thailand to Japan and perhaps several other countries.

But military power can't solve the civil aviation mess arising from deep-rooted corruption and inefficiency unless Prayut uses Article 44 to punish some major players behind the country's most scandalous graft cases.

Deputy Premier Wissanu Krea-ngam likened the draconian Article 44 to a sword kept in its sheath. "We don't have to draw out the sword. It's there and everybody knows it's there. So it's a deterrent. Other countries don't have that sword, so they probably don't understand."

The "sword" is needed, the deputy premier claimed, because the country remains under threat from various groups intent on creating trouble. The premier himself pledged not to use the special powers to "maltreat" anyone. The same old refrain has come up again: "If you haven't done anything wrong, you don't have to be afraid."

Critics of course insist that there is no guarantee that anyone possessing that kind of absolute authority won't use the "sword" against anyone who happens to disagree with them. The logic is, even if you haven't done anything wrong under the law, you may still be under threat from unchecked power, because the law can always be abused, and not toeing the leader's line can be considered a serious offence in any dictatorship.

The premier seems confident that he can "explain everything". But the fact remains that the road to hell is always paved with good intentions. He can't convince a sceptical public that absolute power is a good thing and that it will be applied only to do good deeds.

Instead of trying to defend Article 44, the premier should be demonstrating how he will apply it to resolve some of the major problems affecting the country. And he should deliver a deadline for this state of affairs.

He can't possibly justify the existence of Article 44 for too long. Instead, the PM should redefine the timeline of his road map leading to the promulgation of the new Constitution and a clearer timetable for the next elections. If he can convince the public that the country will indeed be returning to some form of democracy and stability under a specific timeframe, he may find the task of defending Article 44 less stressful.

Of course, there remains the critical question of whether the new Constitution will ensure national reconciliation and whether the reform agenda will put an end to the long drawn-out conflicts. Without that assurance, the whole exercise since May 22 will have come to naught. And the debate on martial law, Article 44 and democracy will simply be another repeat of Thailand's notorious long-running serial drama, "Vicious Circle".

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