BANGKOK: Thailand’s military courts will still hear some 500 ongoing cases against civilians, a senior junta official said Tuesday, a day after the regime announced an end to the controversial practice.
A 2014 coup ushered in one of the most autocratic Thai governments in a generation with generals expanding the use of military courts to try more than one thousand civilians, especially those critical of their rule or the monarchy.
But in a surprise move ahead of a planned visit to the United Nations in New York next week, army chief turned Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-O-Cha said military courts would be phased out for civilians.
Rights groups cautiously welcomed the order, which does not cover ongoing cases and offences prior to the announcement.
“The cases that are still under the deliberation of a military court will go ahead because they have already entered court procedure,” Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam told reporters.
“There are 1,500 cases in the military courts, of which 1,000 cases have already finished and 500 cases remain,” he added.
Thailand’s military courts tend to have much higher conviction rates and are far harder to appeal.
Some have handed down record jail terms, including a 30-year sentence for a series of Facebook posts by a civilian that were deemed critical of the monarchy.
The new order reflects growing confidence among junta leaders that they have successfully curbed opposition.
“We are confident that the situation is under control,” said the junta’s number two, General Prawit Wongsuwan. “But if (the) situation is out of control we can reimpose this order.”
Watana Muangsook, a politician loyal to the ousted government who has been detained by the military several times for criticising their rule, said the order was little more than window dressing.
“If the NCPO is really sincere they should abolish all orders that violate human rights… such as the military’s authorisation to arrest, search and detain people without warrants,” he wrote on Facebook, using the official acronym for the junta.
The International Commission of Jurists, which has monitored military court trials, said the move was a “welcome step” but called for all pending cases to be transferred to civilian courts.
The new policy will not affect Thailand’s three southernmost provinces, which have been governed under emergency laws for the past decade as Thai troops struggle to quell a festering Muslim Malay insurgency.
Army officers also still have the power to arrest and temporarily detain civilians nationwide, while Prayut has maintained his right to unilaterally pass any law in the name of national security.