Vi­cious cir­cle of mar­tial law, Ar­ti­cle 44 and ‘democ­racy’


There is no get­ting away from it: Lift­ing mar­tial law doesn’t mean any­thing if it’s re­placed by an equally, if not more, dra­co­nian law.

But Thai Pre­mier Prayuth Chan-ocha in­sists that Ar­ti­cle 44 of the in­terim Con­sti­tu­tion had been with us all along af­ter the coup last May. Why the fuss now?

Well, the fuss was al­ways there. Hu­man rights ac­tivists have been in­sist­ing that any­thing that smacks of a vi­o­la­tion of ba­sic rights and free­dom of ex­pres­sion must be elim­i­nated. But those calls had al­ways fo­cused on mar­tial law, not Ar­ti­cle 44. That’s why the battle cry is now against Ar­ti­cle 44.

Even if the ar­ti­cle were lifted — which isn’t even re­motely pos­si­ble un­der the cir­cum­stances — the battle would still con­tinue. Hid­den some­where would be clauses that of­fered a wide range of pow­ers to the mil­i­tary and po­lice au­thor­i­ties on se­cu­rity is­sues, re­lated one way or the other to the equiv­a­lent of the In­ter­nal Se­cu­rity Act. Don’t for­get that be­fore mar­tial law there was the state of emer­gency. And be­fore that there was the Se­cu­rity Act.

None of th­ese is ac­cept­able, of course, even if the coup leader sticks by his pledge to ap­ply his ab­so­lute power “con­struc­tively.” He showed how this might be done by us­ing his all-em­brac­ing author­ity un­der Ar­ti­cle 44 to re­struc­ture civil avi­a­tion man­age­ment, af­ter an au­dit by the In­ter­na­tional Civil Avi­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion led to sus­pen­sion of some flights from Thai­land to Ja­pan and per­haps sev­eral other coun­tries.

But mil­i­tary power can’t solve the civil avi­a­tion mess aris­ing from deep-rooted cor­rup­tion and in­ef­fi­ciency un­less Prayuth uses Ar­ti­cle 44 to pun­ish some ma­jor play­ers be­hind the coun­try’s most scan­dalous graft cases.

Deputy Pre­mier Wis­sanu Krea-ngam likened the dra­co­nian Ar­ti­cle 44 to a sword kept in its sheath. “We don’t have to draw out the sword. It’s there and every­body knows it’s there. So it’s a de­ter­rent. Other coun­tries don’t have that sword, so they prob­a­bly don’t un­der­stand.”

The “sword” is needed, the deputy pre- mier claimed, be­cause the coun­try re­mains un­der threat from var­i­ous groups in­tent on cre­at­ing trou­ble. The pre­mier him­self pledged not to use the spe­cial pow­ers to “mal­treat” any­one. The same old re­frain has come up again: “If you haven’t done any­thing wrong, you don’t have to be afraid.”

Crit­ics of course in­sist that there is no guar­an­tee that any­one pos­sess­ing that kind of ab­so­lute author­ity won’t use the “sword” against any­one who hap­pens to dis­agree with them. The logic is, even if you haven’t done any­thing wrong un­der the law, you may still be un­der threat from unchecked power, be­cause the law can al­ways be abused, and not toe­ing the leader’s line can be con­sid­ered a se­ri­ous of­fence in any dic­ta­tor­ship. The pre­mier seems con­fi­dent that he can “ex­plain ev­ery­thing.” But the fact re­mains that the road to hell is al­ways paved with good in­ten­tions. He can’t con­vince a scep­ti­cal public that ab­so­lute power is a good thing and that it will be ap­plied only to do good deeds.

In­stead of try­ing to de­fend Ar­ti­cle 44, the pre­mier should be demon­strat­ing how he will ap­ply it to re­solve some of the ma­jor prob­lems af­fect­ing the coun­try. And he should de­liver a dead­line for this state of af­fairs.

He can’t pos­si­bly jus­tify the ex­is­tence of Ar­ti­cle 44 for too long. In­stead, the PM should re­de­fine the timeline of his road map lead­ing to the pro­mul­ga­tion of the new Con­sti­tu­tion and a clearer timetable for the next elec­tions. If he can con­vince the public that the coun­try will in­deed be re­turn­ing to some form of democ­racy and sta­bil­ity un­der a spe­cific time­frame, he may find the task of de­fend­ing Ar­ti­cle 44 less stress­ful.

Of course, there re­mains the crit­i­cal ques­tion of whether the new Con­sti­tu­tion will en­sure na­tional rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and whether the re­form agenda will put an end to the long drawn-out con­flicts. With­out that as­sur­ance, the whole ex­er­cise since May 22 will have come to naught. And the de­bate on mar­tial law, Ar­ti­cle 44 and democ­racy will sim­ply be an­other re­peat of Thai­land’s no­to­ri­ous long-run­ning se­rial drama, “Vi­cious Cir­cle.”

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