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(New York) – The Thai military’s imposition of nationwide martial law is effectively a coup that threatens the human rights of all Thais, Human Rights Watch said today. The United States and other influential governments should call for the immediate restoration of civilian rule and an end to censorship.

Early on May 20, 2014, the army commander-in-chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, made a televised announcement that the Martial Law Act of 1914 would be enforced throughout Thailand. He said the intervention, which will continue “as long as necessary,” was needed to prevent imminent riots and widespread disturbances arising from increasingly violent political confrontations between anti-government protesters and government supporters.

“The military’s effective seizure of power and imposition of martial law across the country puts the rights of all Thais in jeopardy,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Military spokesmen have denied their intervention is a coup, but what else can one call a situation where the army chief has completely seized power from a civilian administration?”

The Thai military has already acted to restrict the right to press expression. The military-established Peace and Order Maintaining Command (POMC) has already invoked media censorship on information it considers to be “distorted” that could create public misunderstanding.

At present, the military has forced off the air 14 satellite TV channels from both anti-government and pro-government sides, as well as many community radio networks. Soldiers have been in newsrooms to censor “negative” reports and comments. The military has directed print media not to publicize commentaries critical of the role of the military. TV and radio programs have been instructed not to invite anyone to give negative comments about this military intervention and the political situation in Thailand. The military has told journalists that failure to comply will lead to prosecution. 

Several academics and others outside Bangkok have told Human Rights Watch that they have been told by regional military commanders not to make comments about the political situation.

The broad and unchecked powers granted to the military under the century-old Martial Law Act undermine human rights and fundamental freedoms, due process of law, and democratic governance in Thailand.

The provisions of the Martial Law Act place no restraints or limits on the military’s actions. Under the law, the military, without judicial oversight, can prohibit any activity, censor the media at will, outlaw meetings and assemblies, search and seize any item, occupy areas, and detain people without charge for up to seven days. There is no effective redress for harms caused since the law bars remedy or compensation to individuals or companies for any damage caused by military actions done in line with martial law authority.

Immediately following Prayuth’s announcement, military authorities began to exercise their powers over civilian government officials. In Bangkok and across Thailand, the military began to summon officials from government and state agencies, professional associations, and civil society groups to report to the military, where they are being instructed not to defy regulations issued under martial law. According to the Martial Law Act, all civilian officials will have to act in strict compliance with the requirements of the military authority. Furthermore, all the provisions of any law – including human rights safeguards – that are inconsistent with martial law have been suspended and will be replaced by martial law provisions.

“Every minute martial law is in effect, the rights of Thais are being undermined,” Adams said. “Press freedom has been the first casualty, but Thailand’s friends around the world need to speak out to prevent the assault on other basic rights. Civilian rule needs to be restored and elections scheduled so that the Thai people can decide who governs the country.”

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