March 30, 2016 / 10:49 AM / 4 years ago

Thai junta gives troops wide-ranging powers 'because not enough police'

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s military rulers have given soldiers new powers of arrest and detention, the defense minister said on Wednesday, a move rights groups say will only help strengthen a junta crackdown on critics.

Soldiers provide security near Parliament during the National Legislative Assembly meeting in Bangkok January 9, 2015. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

An order issued late on Tuesday gives soldiers authority to seize assets and search premises, said Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan.

“Military officers will take part in activities that are for community safety because there are not enough police officers to tackle crime,” Prawit said.

Rights groups have derided the decision.

“These measures are another affirmation of the strengthening of a military state,” Sunai Phasuk, Thailand Researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.

The order is an extension of Section 44, which critics have dubbed the dictator law, a sweeping provision in the interim constitution that allows the detention of suspects without charge for seven days.

Section 44 was invoked by the junta in 2015 to replace martial law, which was imposed just days before a May 2014 bloodless coup by the army.

Rights groups say the junta has launched a fresh crackdown in recent weeks.

On Tuesday, Theerawan Charoensuk, 57, was charged with sedition for posting a picture on Facebook of herself holding a red plastic bowl - a Thai New Year gift from ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister, Yingluck.

Theerawan faces up to seven years in prison if found guilty.

Junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha this week said the military would extend its “attitude adjustment” program period for critics.

Hundreds of Thais have been hauled in for attitude adjustment at military camps since the 2014 coup.

Thailand has been politically divided for more than a decade. The army ousted Thaksin in 2006, exacerbating a sharp divide between his supporters and the royalist-military establishment.

The 2014 coup removed the remnants of the government of his sister.

Rights groups say the junta has become skittish as an August referendum on a controversial draft constitution nears.

Reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak and Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Nick Macfie

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