Section 44 is forever

Section 44 is forever

There exists in exceptional Thailand a force so powerful it only can be used for good or for evil. The men (exclusively) who run the country insist the power of Section 44 is (exclusively) designed and used only to produce positive results. Not everyone agrees.

This Christmas gift to the nation of Section 44 puts more power in the hands of one man, legally, than any Thai law or decree of the constitutional era. Legally, compared with the tyrant Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha is the all-time titan of statutory tyranny. Sarit’s despotic Section 17 powers only allowed him to act to protect national security. That is a very wide definition, of course, and Sarit dragged accused arsonists to public executions and tossed hundreds into prison on grounds that no court ever would accept.

Flashback Christmas Day, 2014: The prime minister announced the official promulgation of the “interim” constitution including the powerful Section 44. (Screen grab via Thai PBS)

Gen Prayut’s Section 44 powers have no limit, literally. The loose translation of Section 44 of the 2014 interim constitution says, “The head of the junta can do whatever he wants or order other people to do it, and he has full immunity if anything at all ever goes wrong” until death do its part.

So maybe the most remarkable part of all about S44 is that all-powerful Gen Prayut hasn’t ordered anyone summarily executed, like Prime Minister Tanin Kraivixien in 1977. He hasn’t shut all newspapers like Samak Sundaravej, disbanded a political party like Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin or rounded up a few hundred suspects to throw into army six-by-sixes to suffocate like Lord Voldemort na Dubai.

When you think about the many atrocities, human rights violations, killings, disappearances and horribly skewed justice, none trace back directly to S44.

If Gen Prayut has not used Section 44 murderously, he certainly has used it bizarrely. Two months ago he “needed” it to arrest a monk whom the law already said he could arrest. Now he has cancelled that order.

Last week, just as his personal legal eagle and the army commander were rallying to his side, he wrote a three-page S44 order for the Royal Gazette that claimed will help international schools that don’t exist in the Eastern Economic Corridor that may (never) come into being.

This led to certain hilarity, muted as always, when the cabinet’s designated legal expert, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, repeated his baffling claim that the prime minister will use his extraordinary powers sparingly.

Gen Chalermchai Sittisat, commander of the Royal Thai Army, repeated what the cabinet’s designated coup expert, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, said. S44 must be kept because after three years the army has utterly failed to bring order to the country. He didn’t use those words, more’s the pity, because it was only the army, then under Gen Prayut, that ever promised to bring about order. And now there is a “real” constitution, giving dictatorial powers to: no one.

Immediately after His Majesty the King promulgated the 20th supreme law in 85 years, there were those naive and legalistic minds who thought the general prime minister should or, even more trustingly, actually would give up the greatest dictatorial power in the history of the Thai era of constitutional monarchy.

Of course Gen Prayut had to pause for a moment so that he didn’t simply burst out laughing at such people.

The 2014 Christmas present specifically said that anything and everything under Section 44 is forever. The truth is that the general prime minister doesn’t even need people explaining that the utter failure of reorganising the country means he still needs S44. He’s entitled to it. He made it like that.

Gen Prayut does not need political riots and defiance by politicians and clashes between factions on the streets. Gen Prayut owns S44 to the grave if he wants. That’s the law.

To be fair, Gen Prayut never said he would use his dictatorial powers sparingly, as craven supporters did. He said, on Christmas Day, 2014, that he would “exercise great caution” each time he used them. All the more strange that Mr Wissanu keeps saying, as he has for two years, that the general prime minister, who has used S44 like a scattergun, nearly 150 times, will use it “only for select purposes”.

Lord Acton’s caution on how “absolute power corrupts absolutely” is worth remembering if only because tyrants so easily forget it. But perhaps the great community worker Bangambiki Habyarimana of Mozambique said it more cogently in The Great Pearls of Eternity: Nothing is sweeter and more addictive than power.