BANGKOK – Thailand lifted martial law in most of the nation on Wednesday, but 10 months after staging a coup, a military junta remains in control, essentially with absolute power.
The government of coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha had faced growing pressure from foreign governments, human rights groups and particularly its own business community to remove martial law.
Although it wasn't generally visible in everyday life -- there were few soldiers in the streets -- it scared off foreign investors and hurt tourism, which accounts for nearly 10 percent of the GDP. Tour operators called it a tourist deterrent -- partly because many insurance companies won't cover travelers to countries under martial law.
Thailand's king on Wednesday officially approved a request from the junta that martial law be lifted, and the palace issued a statement saying it was "no longer necessary."
In its place, Prayuth said he will invoke a special security measure in the junta-imposed interim constitution called Article 44. Critics say it gives Prayuth unchecked authority over all three branches of government and absolves him of any legal responsibility for his actions.
"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."
Under Article 44, Prayuth has the power to make any order in the name of national security. Some Thai media have referred to it as "the dictator law." Under a similar law in the 1960s, a Thai dictator carried out summary executions.
Human Rights Watch said the move marks "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.
The main difference between the two measures is that martial law -- which remains in place in several southern provinces where the army is fighting a decade-old Islamic insurgency -- is very specific and Article 44 is very vague.
Martial law puts the military in charge of public security and clearly defines its uses in a seven-page document originally enacted in 1907 and amended over the years. It allows arrests without warrants, trials of suspects in military courts, bans on public gatherings and censorship in the name of preserving order.
Article 44 is a single vaguely worded paragraph in the interim constitution which gives the junta leader the power to override any branch of government in the name of national security.
Thailand's military has a history of intervening in politics, having seized power 12 times since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.
Prayuth imposed martial law on May 20, 2014, when he was the country's army chief. A few days later on May 22, he led a coup that toppled the elected civilian government after months of sometimes-violent street protests.
Stability was 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.
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.
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."