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BANGKOK – The big topic of conversation in Thailand is martial law. Technically it's gone, but in reality it's still there.
On Wednesday, Thailand's junta lifted martial law, which was imposed in the run-up to their May 22, 2014, coup — but then quickly replaced it with another set of draconian laws innocuously called "Article 44." But make no mistake — 10 months after staging the coup, a military junta is still ruling Thailand, essentially with absolute power.
The move is the junta's latest cosmetic change aimed at putting a softer face on a military-ruled country, according to scholars, jurists and rights groups who called the development a PR stunt and a sleight of hand aimed at helping restore Thailand's image abroad while keeping the junta firmly in control at home. Others wondered half-jokingly if the government of former army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha pranked the country with an April Fool's joke.
"Martial law may be lifted, but Thailand remains deeply sunk in unchecked military rule," Verapat Pariyawong, an independent political analyst and Harvard-educated lawyer said in a statement, noting that the announcement came Wednesday in "ironic fashion on April Fool's Day."
Prayuth's government had faced growing pressure from overseas and particularly Thailand's own business community to revoke martial law. Although it wasn't generally visible in everyday life — there were few soldiers in the streets — it was devastating for Thailand's image and its economy. It scared off foreign investors and hurt tourism, which accounts for nearly 10 percent of the GDP. Tour operators complained that it was a deterrent to tourists — partly because many insurance companies won't cover travelers to countries under martial law.
Thailand's king on Wednesday formally approved a request from the junta that martial law be lifted. Within minutes of the announcement being aired on national television, another announcement was broadcast informing the country that in place of martial law, the junta was invoking Article 44, a special security measure in the military-imposed interim constitution. It gives Prayuth the power to override any branch of government in the name of national security, and absolves him of any legal responsibility for his actions.
Thai media have referred to it as "the dictator law." Under similar legislation in the 1960s, a Thai dictator carried out summary executions.
"From the outside, the lifting of martial law is good news for business and tourism," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"But from the inside, we're functionally in the same boat," he said about Article 44. "Similar restrictions are still in place. And where there are pockets of dissent and political expression it is likely to be more draconian."
There are many similarities between martial law and Article 44, and some significant differences. Both provide sweeping powers to the military and allow the military to make arrests and conduct searches without warrants. Both also provide for trials of suspects in military courts and censorship in the name of preserving order.
Article 44, however, centralizes power under the head of the junta, who is Prayuth, unlike martial law which more broadly puts the military in charge of public security.
Article 44, like martial law, allows authorities to ban public gatherings but it goes a step further by specifying harsh penalties. It says people who join unauthorized political gatherings of more than five can face up to 6 months in prison.
Wednesday evening, the junta televised an order detailing 14 provisions under Article 44, but it can issue more later.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch said the decision to invoke Article 44 marked "Thailand's deepening descent into dictatorship."
"Thailand's friends abroad should not be fooled by this obvious sleight of hand by the junta leader to replace martial law with a constitutional provision that effectively provides unlimited and unaccountable powers," said Brad Adams, the group's Asia director.
Thailand's military has a history of intervening in politics, having seized power 12 times since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.
In many ways, the move marks another cosmetic evolution for Prayuth, who led the coup as the country's powerful army chief but then shed his uniform and suited up to assume the role of prime minister.
Prayuth imposed martial law on May 20, 2014, and two days later led the coup that toppled the elected civilian government after months of sometimes-violent street protests.
Since the coup, the junta has moved to consolidate power. In July, the military adopted the interim 48-article constitution and formed a junta-appointed legislature. In August, the legislature appointed Prayuth as prime minister — a post he said he will retain until elections, though no date has been set. Polls were initially promised for this year, then pushed to sometime in 2016.
Stability has been restored but at a steep price. Thailand's democratic institutions were dismantled, and the country's authoritarian rulers have crushed dissent.
Critics say the coup leaders' real goal is to eliminate the political influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a 2006 coup. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was ousted by a court ruling just days before last year's coup and later barred from holding office for five years.
The coup was part of a societal schism that in broad terms pits the majority rural poor, who back the Shinawatras, against an urban-based elite that is supported by the army and staunch royalists, who see the Shinawatras as a threat to the traditional structures of power.
Prayuth sought to downplay concerns about Article 44, saying nobody had made much fuss about it until now.
"Article 44 will be exercised constructively," Prayuth said. "Don't worry, if you're not doing anything wrong, there's no need to be afraid."
Associated Press writers Thanyarat Doksone, Grant Peck and Todd Pitman contributed to this report.