US leads criticism of Thai junta martial law replacement

BANGKOK (AFP) - The Thai junta's decision to lift martial law was denounced by critics Thursday as cosmetic, with key ally Washington warning that replacement emergency security measures would do little to loosen the military's grip on power.

In an announcement late Wednesday, Thailand's generals officially lifted martial law 10 months after seizing power in a coup.

But the controversial law, which western allies had urged Bangkok to revoke, was replaced with a new executive order retaining sweeping powers for the military and junta chief Prayuth Chan-O-Cha.

Those measures were passed under Section 44 of the junta-written interim constitution, a controversial provision handing Prayut power to make any executive decision in the name of national security.

The new order includes a continuance of a ban on political gatherings of more than five people, while the military retains the right to arrest, detain and prosecute people for national security crimes or those who fall foul of the country's strict royal defamation laws.

A new rule also appears to deepen censorship of the media, by allowing military officers to stop the publication or presentation of any news they deem to be "causing fear or distorted information".

A US State Department official said Washington expected the Thai military to end trials of civilians in military courts, detention without charge and to allow people to express their opinions freely.

"We are concerned that moving to a security order under Article 44 will not accomplish any of these objectives," the official said.

Inside Thailand, analysts and critics pilloried the replacement measures as martial law in all but name.

"Section 44 is actually worse (than martial law)," constitutional scholar Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University told AFP, adding that the new order allows Prayut to execute key decisions without the oversight of a military court.

"When they ask for the martial law to be lifted, what the public is really asking for is the return of basic rights and liberties to Thais. Prayut fails to understand that," he said.

Political commentator Verapat Pariyawong described the move to replace martial law "with something even worse" as an "April Fool's day trick".

"The junta realises the situation is very unstable at the moment. They know they lack legitimacy. That is why they have to maintain such a tight grip," the London-based analyst told AFP by telephone.

But some defended the military saying the potential remained for anti-coup protests to upset the uneasy peace imposed since the coup.

"The powers have been reduced," former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, a staunch pro-establishment politician, told AFP adding that those who criticise the new order as the same as martial law are being "unfair".

"They (the military) are looking for a way to try and relax but they are doing it at their own pace and they still feel that they are not yet secure," he added.

Thailand's generals had been under pressure from western allies, businesses and tour operators to rescind martial law.

The tourism industry, which usually accounts for around 10 percent of GDP, said the law put tourists off and made it difficult for some visitors to obtain insurance.

Earlier this week junta officials told reporters that Prayut was inclined to lift martial law because of pressure from foreign governments.

Thailand's generals took over last May after months of often violent street protests that led to the ousting of Yingluck Shinawatra's democratically-elected government.

It marked the latest chapter in a decade of political conflict broadly pitting Bangkok's middle classes and the royalist elite - backed by parts of the military and judiciary - against pro-Shinawatra urban working-class voters and farmers from the country's north.

Prayut has vowed to return power to an elected civilian government, but only once reforms to tackle corruption and curb the power of political parties are codified in a new constitution.

Critics say those reforms are aimed at neutering the power of the Shinawatras, ensuring that they and parties linked to them can never take office again.

Parties run by or allied to the Shinawatras have won every election since 2001.