- - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

BANGKOK — The leader of Thailand’s military coup lifted martial law Wednesday but established a harsher security edict that critics say creates a 1950s-style dictatorship with “absolute powers” — just 10 days after Thai troops received U.S. training.

In a national TV appearance, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha announced an immediate end to the nearly yearlong martial law regime after a request for the change from King Bhumibol Adulyadej, saying stringent measures no longer are needed to maintain order and peace.

In place of martial law, a measure called Article 44 was introduced. It allows Gen. Prayuth to issue any commands, unchallenged, based on his “opinion that it is necessary,” including the ability to impose laws without the legislature.

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,” New York-based Human Rights Watch said Wednesday. “Thailand’s deepening descent into dictatorship [must be stopped by] concerted pressure from Thailand’s allies.”

A non-NATO U.S. ally in Southeast Asia, Thailand has had 12 coups since 1932 — mostly recently in May, when Gen. Prayuth wrested power from an elected civilian government after months of sometimes violent political unrest. Washington has criticized Bangkok’s regime but maintains close links with it, in part to balance Thailand’s excellent relations with China.

A deep political divide between mostly poor, rural folk and well-off city dwellers has hamstrung efforts to secure democracy in this Buddhist-majority nation of 67 million people, and the new security law could fuel clashes.

During a news conference Tuesday, Gen. Prayuth explained Thailand’s problem with “true democracy” to a foreign correspondent by unhooking his shirt’s bottom button and saying in broken English, “Thailand is like a shirt, and the button, the button like this.”

He tugged one side of his shirt and the top of his pants, showing they did not line up properly. “They wrong, maybe. Thailand not only this, but maybe shirt and trousers,” the prime minister said.

Known for explosive displays of anger and frustration, Gen. Prayuth often speaks and behaves bizarrely in public, making many jittery about his stability and ultimate intentions.

“If I genuinely had complete power, I would have imprisoned [critics] or handed them to a firing squad,” he said in a March 23 speech at a Federation of Thai Industries convention in Bangkok.

He often complains that no one listens to his televised monologues — which have aired for 10 months every Friday night — or understands his “jokes” that executions should be meted out to journalists.

“Listen to me. Today I met all the leaders. Former President Clinton, [the prime minister of] Japan, South Korea. Everyone,” Gen. Prayuth told reporters Sunday after attending the funeral for Singapore’s former authoritarian leader, Lee Kuan Yew. “They expressed congratulations that Thailand is peaceful. None of them criticized me.”

Article 44 appears in the loophole-riddled interim constitution Gen. Prayuth created in July after ripping up the country’s 2007 constitution. It grants the military leader the authority to conduct search-and-seizure operations without a warrant, as well as to summon and detain anyone suspected of being a national security threat.

According to the constitutional provision, Gen. Prayuth now possesses “powers to make any order to disrupt or suppress, regardless of the legislative, executive or judicial force of that order. That order, act or any performance in accordance with that order, is deemed to be legal, constitutional and conclusive.”

The general participated in the 2006 coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. After shredding a 1997 constitution, the military junta crafted the 2007 constitution that Gen. Prayuth has voided.

Gen. Prayuth imposed martial law just before his bloodless May coup toppled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of Thaksin. The general then sent defiant civilians to “attitude adjustment” camps or to military courts for trial.

Shrugging off U.S. and international criticism, Gen. Prayuth appears confident that a tougher law will crush his opponents, lock Thailand into a “peaceful” status and be accepted grudgingly by foreign governments.

“Article 44 provides absolute powers,” the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, the Human Rights Lawyers Association, the Union for Civil Liberty and other rights groups warned in a statement Monday.

Article 44 “has no constraint, no oversight, no checks or balances, and no retribution,” a Bangkok Post editorial said Monday. “Grasping the powers of past dictators such as Sarit Thanarat goes against logic.”

Many Thais shudder when remembering Field Marshal Sarit who, after his bloodless 1957 coup, used a similar law to execute people by public and secret firing squads, including suspected communists, a Chinese arsonist and a deadly cult leader.

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