Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra yesterday defended a decree giving him sweeping emergency powers to combat a violent insurgency in Thailand's Muslim-dominated south, comparing the situation to the US where some civil liberties were curtailed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The decree was issued after a daring raid on Thursday night by Islamic insurgents on the capital of Yala Province, in which they destroyed electrical transformers to black out the city, then caused chaos by firing automatic weapons and setting off bombs. Two policemen were killed and 22 other people were injured.
"The security agencies were well aware that a major attack was going to happen in Yala province on Thursday night, but they could not do anything to stop it because they said they have no power under the law. That was a very idiotic problem," Thaksin said in his weekly radio address.
About 900 people have died in the southernmost provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani since January last year, when Muslim separatists launched their insurgency. Government efforts so far, including a large-scale military deployment, have failed to make headway in controlling the violence.
The decree announced on Friday would give Thaksin the authority to impose curfews, ban public gatherings, censor news and close publications. Suspects can also be detained without charge, property can be confiscated and phones tapped. The decree must be signed by King Bhumibol Adulyadej to take effect, and such approval is normally a formality.
Its provisions were immediately criticized in academic and media circles.
In a front-page comment, the Nation newspaper called the decree a "solution more worrying than the problem," and said giving Thaksin such sweeping and absolute powers "could plunge the whole of Thailand into something much darker than the widespread blackout" caused by Thursday's insurgent raid in Yala.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said the decree would not help the situation.
"Thaksin has apparently contemplated taking direct control over the situation. This further centralizes executive power, and what we need in the south is more decentralization, which several groups have proposed," the academic said. "The more centralized the control becomes, the worse the violence gets."
Thaksin, who has a reputation for being intolerant of criticism, said those who criticized the decree "have no understanding of how the law can help the authorities cope with the country's deteriorating situation."
He said the powers would be used only in areas where a state of emergency had been declared.
"Whenever or wherever a society or community is not safe, freedoms and personal rights ... must face some limitations in order to have all people living together in peace," he said.
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