BANGKOK (AFP, Reuters) - Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said on Tuesday he has asked for King Bhumibol Adulyadej's permission to lift martial law which has been in place nationwide before a coup in May last year, but added that the military would retain sweeping powers.
The law, among other things, bans all political gatherings and gives the military sweeping powers of arrest and detention.
"I have asked for the king's permission to lift martial law. The power is now with His Majesty," Prayuth told reporters, adding that he would replace martial law with Article 44 in the interim constitution. "A new order (to replace martial law) will be issued very soon," the former army chief said.
Thailand has been under increased pressure from western allies, businesses and tour operators to lift martial law which was decreed shortly before the military seized power in a coup last May.
Major General Sunsern Kaewkumnerd, a deputy junta spokesman, told reporters Prayuth felt the decision was necessary because "foreign countries were concerned over our use of martial law".
Under the law the army has been able to prosecute those accused of national security and royal defamation offences in military courts with no right of appeal. The media has been muzzled while political gatherings of more than five people are banned.
In announcing his intention to lift martial law, Prayuth gave his first public comments on what might replace it - with clear indications that the military would retain significant powers.
NO NEED FOR PARLIAMENT
Article 44 grants the junta chief power to make an executive order on national security issues without having to go through the military-stacked parliament. Critics have said that order could end up being even more draconian than martial law.
Prayuth said military courts would still be used for security offences but convictions could now be appealed to higher tribunals. Security forces would continue to be able to make arrests without a court warrant, "otherwise it would be too late and a suspect could flee".
Prayuth did not say whether cases under Thailand's royal defamation law - one of the world's strictest - would continue to be prosecuted through military courts, or whether the current ban on political gatherings would be lifted.
Prayuth seized power last May after months of often violent street protests paralysed Yingluck Shinawatra's democratically elected government. He 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 Yingluck and her brother, ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ensuring that they and parties linked to them can never take office again.
Rights groups say basic freedoms have been severely eroded since the military took over and lese majeste legislation has been increasingly used to stifle political opposition.
Thailand has been rocked by a decade-long political crisis which broadly pits a Bangkok-based middle class and royalist elite - backed by parts of the military and judiciary - against urban working-class voters and farmers from the country's north loyal to the Shinawatras.