On Wednesday, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej approved a request from the country’s ruling junta to lift martial law, which had been put in place indefinitely shortly before the coup last May.
But martial law might have just been replaced with something worse. Article 44 of the junta-drafted interim constitution – dubbed ‘The Dictator Law’ by some – gives the Thai military similar powers to those they have during martial law while also expanding the authority of junta leader and prime minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha considerably.
Under Article 44, military officers can still detain people for seven days without formal charges, and restrictions on public gatherings and the media remain. Unlike martial law, which puts the military in charge, Article 44 would centralize authority around Prayuth himself. It would grant him absolute power to give any order deemed necessary for the benefit of reform, peace and security, and absolve him of any legal responsibility. This would effectively allow him to bypass other branches of government and effectively take absolute control.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political scientist at Thailand’s revered Chulalongkorn University, said that with the lifting of martial law and Article 44, the country is “functionally in the same boat.” “Where there are pockets of dissent and political expression,” he added, “it is likely to be more draconian.”
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein was less charitable. Zeid said in a statement that the revision “leaves the door wide open to serious violations of fundamental human rights and “annihilates freedom of expression.”
“In effect, this means the sweeping away of all checks and balances on the power of the government, rendering the lifting of martial law meaningless,” Zeid added.
The junta, for its part, has unsurprisingly denied that Article 44 would be worse than martial law. “It will be a positive thing and those who have good intentions will not be affected,” said Army Chief General Udomdej Sitabutr. “This law is to protect against those who think badly because there are still people who think differently.”
Prayuth himself sought to downplay concerns about Article 44. “Article 44 will be exercised constructively,” he told reporters. “Don’t worry, if you’re not doing anything wrong, there’s no need to be afraid.”
He also responded to criticism of the ‘dictator law’ by saying he was not a “ruthless person.”
“Please explain to foreign countries or they may think I am intoxicated with power,” he told journalists.