Thai Junta Turns Law Enforcement Over to Soldiers

Thailand’s junta – the National Council for Peace and Order – has pushed through a new directive that essentially puts army second lieutenants in charge of the entire criminal and civil code, giving them the power to summon, arrest and detain suspects without search warrants and without court oversight.

The order was issued on March 29 by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former general who led the May 22, 2014 coup that ended democratic government in Thailand. Titled “Prevention and suppression of certain offences that are harmful to public order or sabotage the economic system and society of the country,” the measure is designed to “to increase the efficiency of the prevention and suppression of crime. In addition, this is to protect the peacefulness and economic and social system of the country together with the protection of rights and liberties of honest people.”

However, the Bangkok Post, in an editorial, called the order “an affront to the justice system.” As the military lockdown of Thai society nears the two-year mark, Prayuth’s attempts to keep Thailand’s relatively louche, laid-back society in check have grown ever harsher. The use of the Computer Crimes Act and lese-majeste charges has reached ever-stricter levels. The new military order is raising red flags to civil libertarians who say it has the potential to allow arbitrary detention by untrained junior military figures of almost anyone including those who might merely look threatening to the soldiers.

It is also raising questions about how much more Thai society wants to put up with from an ever-more draconian regime. One observer suggested the military may have underestimated the extent “to which soldiers piling through the front door of houses is going to sour the Thai people.” As Asia Sentinel reported on March 14, an irritated and economically battered Bangkok elite, which welcomed the military coup that brought an end to months of political chaos in Bangkok, are starting to tire of what a banker called “thieves against thieves, crooks against crooks,” describing the military’s current activities as “political and economic bungling.”

"This is an appalling and frightening step by the military that goes in lock-step with Gen. Prayuth's frequent use of interim constitution article 44, that allows him to order any activity and prevents any sort of accountability for that action under law,” said a western observer in Bangkok. “With this new ordinance, Prayuth now has his military storm troopers who can kick down doors, legally arrest people, seize property and evidence, and essentially move to enforce all aspects of criminal law that heretofore were left to the police. It's a dark day for rights in Thailand, and this moment will be remembered as one were things started going very desperately wrong."

According to a translation of the order, it is aimed at mafia figures, drug traffickers, gamblers, those amassing weapons and people who “are behaving in such a way as to commit certain crimes that are harmful or sabotage the economy and society of the country by bullying, threatening or presenting oneself in such a way as to cause others to be afraid and not dare to resist or to make a complaint to the authorities as they are afraid that harm will happen to them.”

It appoints as “prevention and suppression officers” military officers with the rank of army second lieutenant, naval sub-lieutenants or air force pilots, members of the regular army or ranger volunteers appointed by the Head of the NCPO or his authorized representative. They are allowed to operate outside the justice system and are given immunity by the country’s interim charter.

The latitude allowed to the military is astonishingly broad. Not only are those who can be “prevented or suppressed” those have committed a crime but anyone who “has a reasonable ground to be suspected that s/he has committed offences,” those “exhibiting behavior in such a way” as to be suspected of receiving illicit benefits.

It can be construed as an offense to “make someone afraid of harm to their life, body, freedom, reputation or possession of the coerced person or of other people. (2) Present oneself in such a way as to make other people scared, not dare to resist them or make a complaint to the officer to take action, as they are scared that harm may occur to them.”

Prevention and suppression officers are given the power to summon or arrest virtually anyone suspected of a long list potential violations. Those under suspicions must submit any document or evidence the arresting soldier asks for. It gives the army the right to “enter any residences or any places to search including searching a person or vehicle when there is a suspicious cause with reasonable evidence that a person has committed an offence…or is hiding or having illegal possessions, or obtained possessions in an illegal manner, or having used possessions or will use these to commit a crime…or these can be used as an evidence.

The military is given the right to take such actions if there is a “reasonable cause to believe that a delay to obtain a search warrant, will result in the person escaping or such possession to be moved, hidden, destroyed or transformed.”

Soldiers can seize or freeze possessions virtually at will. If they aren’t satisfied with answers, they can hold suspects for up to seven days. If they fail to comply with the conditions of release, they can be jailed for a year or fined up to Bt20,000 or both.

Some 27 different categories of possible offenses are listed in the order including all offenses related to the Criminal Code, offenses relating to public peace, “sexuality” including procurers, forgers, “offenses to liberty and reputation, extortion, blackmail, robbery and “offenses relating to deceitful action” as well as scores more.

“The plan for continuing dictatorship is becoming clear, with military officers taking effective control of the criminal investigations, and assuming the powers of the police,” the Bangkok-based observer said. “This is a new threshold, a whole new low on human rights in Thailand, that shows the NCPO is entrenching itself for the long term. What's telling is that the NCPO's list of 'influential persons' is not about so-called mafia only, but includes community leaders and activists who are being targeted by the military for standing up for their rights."