Can Thailand’s Military Rule Without Martial Law?

By Joshua Kurlantzick

April 2, 2015

Over the past month, the Thai press has repeatedly suggested that the junta-installed government will soon remove martial law. Martial law has been in place since the May 2014 coup. (Some provinces in the south had martial law long before 2014.) And indeed, this week the Thai government does appear ready to lift martial law. Coup leader-turned prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his government may be making this move since many foreign governments and rights organizations have specifically criticized martial law, holding it up as a sign of serious restrictions on rights and freedoms. Bangkok may hope that by removing martial law, the government can mend fences with many of the democracies that have criticized Prayuth and the post-coup period.

Yet in reality, Prayuth’s government appears ready to merely replace de jure martial law with de facto martial law. In fact, Prayuth potentially will wield even more power than he had before—virtually absolute power, according one of Thailand’s most prominent national human rights commissioners. Although martial law seems about to end, Prayuth will instead invoke article 44 of the interim (junta-created) Thai constitution, a provision that specifically gives the prime minister absolute and unchecked power, according to Thai newspapers. “The article [44] gives the prime minister absolute authority,” National Human Rights Commissioner Niran Pitakwatchara told The Nation.  Indeed, the article could give Prayuth even more control over the bureaucracy and judiciary than he had under martial law—which is saying a lot. Prayuth reportedly has promised to exercise his absolute power under article 44 “in a constructive manner,” though it is unclear what he means by that.

Prayuth’s plan to potentially amass more power is worrying given a series of recent tense interactions between the prime minister and reporters, activists, and other critics of the current Thai government. Since the May 2014 coup, political and civil rights have been curtailed significantly in the kingdom, but sectors of Thai civil society, such as some media outlets, have continued to be critical of the government. Last week, seemingly unhappy with reporting about his administration, Prayuth said, “We’ll probably just execute” reporters who do not support the government. The execution comment came after a string of other harsh encounters between the prime minister and the press. These included one in which the prime minister simply left the podium rather than answering questions, one in which Prayuth threw a banana peel at a reporter for asking a tough question, and one in which he threatened to “smack” a reporter with the podium.

While Prayuth has not (yet) carried out his severest threats, there is no doubt that the military remains firmly in charge.

Saksith Saiyasombut, a renowned Thai blogger, noted that the execution comments may change public perceptions of General Prayuth. Previously, the prime minister’s multiple outbursts at the press and other critics were, as Saksith notes, viewed by some Thais as “amusing one-note anecdotes about somebody’s [Prayuth’s] public anger issues”—especially since Prayuth often seemed to be speaking off-the-cuff and smiling while saying harsh things. (The prime minister did not smile while making his execution comment, though much of the Thai press reported his comment as if he were joking, which he may have been.) Instead, Saksith writes, perhaps Thai civil society should take Prayuth’s threats more literally—“as [those] of somebody who knows no other way to exert power than by abusive force—and more worryingly, is in a situation and position powerful enough to actually do it.”

(Read more: Should the US Move Its Cobra Gold War Games Out of Thailand?)

Saksith may be correct. However, while some Thai media outlets remain critical of the government, and while Prayuth has not (yet) carried out his severest threats, there is no doubt that the military remains firmly in charge. As a result, fewer and fewer Thais may be willing to express fear of the prime minister. Removing martial law and replacing it with a situation in which Prayuth claims absolute rule will only further entrench the prime minister’s power, and potentially make it harder to move back toward democracy.

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By Joshua Kurlantzick // Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Mr. Kurlantzick was most recently a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he studied Southeast Asian politics and economics and China's relations with Southeast Asia, including Chinese investment, aid, and diplomacy. Previously, he was a fellow at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy and a fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy. Mr. Kurlantzick has also served as a columnist for Time, a special correspondent for the New Republic, a senior correspondent for the American Prospect, and a contributing writer for Mother Jones. He also serves on the editorial board of Current History. He is the winner of the Luce Scholarship for journalism in Asia and was selected as a finalist for the Osborn Elliot prize for journalism in Asia. His first book, Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power Is Transforming the World, was nominated for CFR's 2008 Arthur Ross Book Award. He is the author of the recently published book Democracy in Retreat.

April 2, 2015