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[ 2015-04-09 ]

Thailands Martial Rule

Thailand’s military dictator Prayuth Chan-ocha says he realized martial law was hurting the country’s reputation abroad. So last week he lifted martial law and declared instead that his orders will have the force of law.

Instead of only being able to hold dissidents for seven days without charge, the Thai military can now do whatever it likes. The last dictator to hold such powers, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, used them to summarily execute his opponents in the 1960s.

To the junta’s dismay, some disloyal Thais have “misunderstood” Gen. Prayuth’s magnanimous lifting of martial law. So Deputy Chairman Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan reassured the public that his boss’s invocation of Article 44 of the military-imposed provisional constitution—which allows the junta leader to issue any order deemed necessary for national security—won’t change anything. It will only be used to “mimic” the powers granted by martial law.

Military-appointed Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam offered an equally compelling reason for optimism: The Article, he said, “cannot be applied to harm anybody until it is used.”

Gen. Prayuth was more blunt: Those who question his powers forfeit the protections of being Thai citizens. He appreciated the ability to act swiftly “to apprehend people, if an incident occurs, without an arrest warrant.” But he also explained that he doesn’t want to detain one suspect for even one day. In his heart he is a democrat: Otherwise, why would he have seized power?

Meanwhile, arbitrary detentions and prosecutions for thought crimes are on the rise. The junta has detained journalists and threatened media, most recently last week when Gen. Prayuth promised to close down publications that “don’t write good things.” Four bombing suspects last month alleged they were tortured in police custody and smuggled photos of their injuries out of prison. The junta denied torture was used but barred the government’s own human-rights body from interviewing the suspects.

Most critics of the junta are keeping their heads down and waiting to see the new permanent constitution it is due to unveil later this month. Enough details of how the charter will restrict democratic rights and perpetuate military control have already leaked that even the pro-coup Democrat Party has split with the generals. If Thailand’s new strongman wants to crush resistance to the constitution, he may need the full power of Article 44.

The Wall Street Journal

April 7, 2015 7:19 p.m. ET