BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's junta chief has given the military broad new police-like powers to arrest and detain criminal suspects, in an unannounced move that rights groups criticized Wednesday as a recipe for human rights violations.
The decree Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha issued late Tuesday night comes amid a wider crackdown on civil liberties. Authorities the same day charged a woman with sedition for posting a Facebook photo of herself holding a red plastic bowl that was deemed too politically charged.
The order, published in Thailand's Royal Gazette under the title "Suppression of wrongdoings that could threaten Thai economy and society," gives soldiers in the army, navy and air force who are ranked sub-lieutenant and higher the power to summon, arrest and detain suspects in a wide range of crimes for up to seven days.
The soldiers can act against people suspected in 27 different types of crime, including extortion, human trafficking, robbery, fraud, forgery, defamation, debt collection, gambling, child protection, prostitution, loan sharking and tour guide services. It says the soldiers are appointed "crime prevention and suppression officers" and anyone ranked below sub-lieutenant can act as their assistants.
Prayuth, the former army chief, invoked the powers under a law he enacted after leading a May 2014 coup that gives him as junta chief near-absolute authority without any accountability. The law, known as Article 44, allows Prayuth to take any measures deemed necessary to promote public order and unity. Rights groups say Article 44 is essentially martial law in all but name.
"There are people whose behavior and wrongdoings are considered crimes. They threaten the country's economy and society," the order says. Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan was quoted by The Bangkok Post as saying that soldiers would also act as interrogators and were taking on the new role because there were not enough police to tackle crime.
Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, called the move "a recipe for abuse, not greater peace and order."
"By erasing the line between the military and the police, Prime Minister Prayuth has further reinforced his dictatorship and guaranteed more blatant human rights abuses, increased numbers of civilians being tried in military courts, and further impunity for soldiers to do whatever they want whenever they want," he said.
Since toppling an elected government in the 2014 coup, Prayuth has restricted freedom of speech, barred public protests and relentlessly pursued critics by detaining journalists, academics and other perceived dissidents at military bases for so-called "attitude adjustment." The junta says criticism could destabilize the nation, which it says needs unity after almost a decade of sometimes violent political conflict.
On Tuesday, a 57-year-old woman in northern Thailand was arrested and charged with sedition for posting a photo of herself holding a red plastic bowl inscribed with a New Year's greeting from two former prime ministers, siblings Yingluck and Thaksin Shinawatra, according to Human Rights Watch. A military court in Chiang Mai released her on 100,000 baht ($2,800) bail pending a military trial. If found guilty, Theerawan Charoensuk could face up to seven years in prison.
"The Thai junta's fears of a red plastic bowl show its intolerance of dissent has reached the point of absolute absurdity," said Adams. "It's clear that the end of repression is nowhere in sight."
A Thai journalist who is one of the junta's prominent critics, Pravit Rojanaphruk, said he learned Wednesday that the junta will not allow him to leave the country in May to attend a conference in Finland on World Press Freedom Day.
He posted the news on Facebook, along with a tweet from Finnish Ambassador to Thailand Kirsti Westphalen: "The Embassy of Finland regrets Thailand government decision to forbid (Pravit) to travel to Helsinki to attend World Press Freedom Day."
Pravit was twice detained for "attitude adjustment" while working for The Nation newspaper, which ultimately asked him to leave because of pressure from the junta.
A government spokesman, Sansern Kaewkamnerd, said he was not aware of the ban against Pravit but, "if it's true, it must be related to national security."