By Attayuth Bootsripoom
On Monday, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha finally ordered an end to military trials for civilians.
Military courts had been empowered to try civilians in cases concerning national security, sedition or lese majeste since soon after the 2014 coup.
The move drew fierce condemnation from both domestic and international quarters, with critics pointing out that military courts drew their personnel from the same group as those in power. Military courts also tend to have far higher conviction rates than their civilian counterparts, and hand down verdicts that are harder to appeal. And repeated assurances from the authorities never managed to dispel widespread concern that justice is more likely to be done in a civilian courtroom than in a military tribunal.
Rights watchdogs here and abroad led growing calls for the practice to be halted.
Those calls were bolstered by the claim that the junta was using military justice to target its political enemies, denying them fair trial.
Unsurprisingly, rights groups have welcomed General Prayut’s decision to rein in military justice for civilians. The move brings light at the end of the tunnel in terms of a return to international norms of justice and rule of law.
The NCPO order cited an ongoing relaxation of post-coup measures needed to pave the way for sustainable development, national reform and reconciliation. It also mentioned the new constitution “to be promulgated very soon”.
The “relaxation” suggests that the powers-that-be are confident they are now in full control. And easing their grip will also help relax the pressure being brought to bear on the government from both inside and outside the country.
In fact, the NCPO chief could go further in this direction by transferring all the ongoing civilian cases in military courts to the civilian justice system. Since the last coup, more than 1,500 civilian cases have been filed with military courts, and more than 500 are still ongoing, according to Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam.
“The cases that are still under the deliberation of a military court will go ahead because they have already entered court procedure,” Wissanu explained.
Critics claim that Prayut’s order only came after the mission to target enemies with military justice had been completed.
Prayut should also revoke the order that empowers military personnel to make arrests, which is a further intrusion on the civilian justice system and a potential weapon for the junta to wield against political enemies.
Relinquishing these additional powers would serve as a token of good faith in the path back to democracy. It would also enable the junta to credibly claim that such extra powers were necessary to bring order in the aftermath of the coup and were not levied with a hidden political motive.
Prayut deserves praise for calling an end to the prosecution of civilians in military courts. All we need now is a few more steps to complete a move back to judicial normalcy that would benefit the country as a whole.