Thai Junta Goes on a Teaching Expedition

Thailand’s government leaders, believing they can convince foreign diplomats of the attractiveness of its replacement of martial law with seemingly even more restrictive provisions, says they will seek to explain the measure to them.

Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam told local reporters Sunday that he would be involved personally in briefing the foreign legations and that he was ready to answer all questions that the envoys might have, betraying what appears to be an essential misunderstanding of the outrage western diplomats in Bangkok have displayed publicly since last year’s coup, which dismantled a popularly elected democracy led by Pheu Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The former premier, having been impeached by a government she had never led, now faces trial on corruption charges. The international community remains deeply skeptical, with some calling the new law merely a cosmetic cover-up that has fooled no one.

Coup leader and current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha announced the lifting of martial law on March 31 in an attempt to forestall international criticism over a lockdown of the country so severe that it has cut into tourism revenues and gross domestic product, although the government continues to insist that public opinion polls remain favorable.

“We have consistently recommended that Thai authorities rescind martial law in order to restore full civil liberties,” a US Embassy spokesperson told Asia Sentinel. “We note the interim government’s announcement on April 2 that it has lifted martial law.”

However, the spokesperson said, “we are concerned that authorities issued at the same time a new security order under Article 44 of the interim Constitution replacing martial law, which appears to retain many of the same restrictions on civil liberties, such as limits on fundamental freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, as well as retaining the practices of trying civilians in military courts and detention without charge. We‎ continue to look for the full restoration of civil liberties in Thailand, which would allow for an open and robust debate about the country’s political future.”

The new law is taken from Article 44 of the provisional constitution put in place last year after the coup. According to the official translated language, the measure “empowers the leader of the National Council for Peace and Order” – Prayuth himself – to issue any order “for the sake of the reforms in any field, the promotion of love and harmony amongst the people in the nation, or the prevention, abatement or suppression of any act detrimental to national order or security, royal throne, national economy or public administration, whether the act occurs inside or outside the kingdom.” The orders as issued are all deemed “lawful, constitutional and final” in advance, without needing approval.

Junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Sunsern Kaewkumnerd previously told reporters Prayuth felt the decision to substitute the new law was necessary because "foreign countries were concerned over our use of martial law." It isn’t just foreign countries that have announced concern, however. The coup, by replacing many leaders of government-linked companies with generals, has cut into growth forecasts, with 2014 GDP falling sharply from projected levels although it remained positive.

And, despite the hype, the country won’t disband the military tribunals that were put in place three days after seizing power and which have resulted in hundreds of people being called in and sent for trial including opposition politicians, activists, journalists, and others accused of supporting Pheu Thai, disrespecting or offending the monarchy, or being involved in anti-coup protests and activities.

Following the announcement of the replacement of martial law with Article 44, the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issued statements condemning the new law and saying it presented nothing more than a fig leaf to cover the junta’s crackdown. The International Committee of Jurists has opposed the new measure.

Wissanu, the deputy prime minister, said told reporters that Article 44 would not be directly used against individuals, as widely misunderstood. "Foreigners may perceive [it] differently from Thais as they're looking at it from another perspective," he said. Thais, he said, had previous experience with such restrictive laws over several previous episodes of power by the military, although the younger generation of Thais, he said, were not familiar with it. Article 44, he was quoted by The Nation as saying, may surprise foreigners because they have never seen this kind of law before, especially when they see that it is applied to different issues.

"If we compare Article 44 to a sword, it's like keeping it in its scabbard and wielding it only when necessary," he said.

What is going to be difficult to explain to the foreign diplomats is the establishment by the military of five committees to monitor all media content, including international outlets and to report offenders to military leaders daily. All six television major stations and 525 radio frequencies are under constant threat of being closed. Coverage of politics is out. The police offer a US$15 bounty for internet users to inform on friends and co-workers who post anti-coup comments. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of websites have been closed or, if from overseas, blocked.

"The NCPO's Order of 3/2015 (concerning the use of Article 44) was issued by the NCPO's chief, not by the Cabinet, so the NCPO will be the institution in charge," Wissanu told reporters, despite the fact that the language of the law specifically empowers the leader of the council to issue any order he wants to issue.