44 reasons to reconsider

44 reasons to reconsider

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha may have a secret plan for the use of Section 44 of the interim constitution. For the moment, however, it appears that invoking this draconian article is almost the only action that could be worse than martial law. Grasping the powers of past dictators such as Sarit Thanarat goes against logic as well as public trust. And if the idea is to show that the military regime is advancing by revoking martial law, it simply won't work.

First, the good part. The government is clearly aware that its continued use of martial law is harming the country. Tourists fear it, foreign governments use it as their No.1 criticism and Thais have a visceral, historical dislike of it. It is extremely encouraging that the prime minister, his cabinet and military advisers are taking this into account. Some regimes would just ignore it.

There is little else that is positive about the plan to axe martial law and immediately invoke Section 44. The reaction is already obvious. Tourists will fear it more, foreign critics will double their public scorn, and the nation will recall the terrible actions of dictators long gone. In a single day after Gen Prayut announced his plan, scholars and business leaders, legal experts and politicians gave their reactions. Not one was positive.

The basic reason for the opposition is simple. Martial law, particularly extended periods of martial law, causes unease. But martial law contains a constant element that dampens fears and opposition. It contains and employs the word "law". For all its faults, martial law includes courts and judges and rules of arrest. Section 44, however, does not.

Even when the 48-section interim constitution was written and invoked last July 22, the reason for Section 44 never was explained. It is certainly simple. It says that at any time the head of the National Council for Peace and Order wants, he can invoke "the powers to make any order to disrupt or suppress regardless of the legislative, executive or judicial force of that order".

The section has no constraint, no oversight, no checks or balances, and no retribution. It says forthrightly that anything done by the NCPO chief is "legal, constitutional and conclusive". It has been two generations since anyone had that kind of authority under the Terrible Trio of Thanom and Narong Kittikachorn and Prapass Charusathiara — and they were checked and then overthrown in a people's revolution. In truth, the last person to hold that much power was Field Marshal Sarit, who died 52 years ago.

If Gen Prayut needs the absolute power of a long-dead dictator, he must explain why, and in great detail. For now, however, the reason for this move is not at all clear. In fact, the only thing that is clear is the opposition that the premier can expect if he insists on going ahead with this plan.

Now is the time for the prime minister to explain the enormous emergency that requires him to assume long-abandoned powers. Otherwise, he would not be receiving good advice if he proceeds. A weekend of criticism from every corner of society must cause the premier to stop and reconsider his options.

There are strong demands for the removal of martial law. There is not, however, any visible support for invoking Section 44. In addition to its dictatorial nature, it comes from a constitution that, in any case, is temporary. Prime Minister Prayut should consult the country and consider a different, more acceptable method of ensuring law and order.

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