Sunday, December 23, 2007

Thailand Approves Internal Security Law

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — Thailand's military-installed parliament approved a controversial internal security law that critics warned Friday will allow the military to maintain a grip on power even after this weekend's general election.

The new law will allow the Internal Security Operations Command to order curfews, restrict freedom of movement and curb the powers of government officials in situations deemed harmful to national security.

It also allows the agency to detain suspects without trial for up to six months and restrict access to electronic equipment — a vague clause that critics say could include censorship of the Internet and possibly permit the authorities to tap telephones.

In a concession to critics, the law names the prime minister as head of ISOC and the army chief as second-in-command, a change from draft versions that had the army chief as the agency's director.

The National Legislative Assembly voted 105-8 with two abstentions to pass the Internal Security Bill late Thursday, in a vote widely criticized as an effort to steamroll the legislation through before Sunday's general election.

The NLA was set up by the military to serve as an interim parliament until the election, which will fill the 480-seat lower house of parliament. The poll comes 15 months after the coup ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Hundreds of activists protested outside parliament Thursday, one of several demonstrations against the security law.

The legislation was proposed after Thaksin's ouster. The interim government argued that old laws covering national security needed to be reviewed to curb new security threats, such as the rise of a bloody Muslim insurgency in the country's far south and threats from drug trafficking.

Critics say the law assures sweeping military powers over the country.

"The bill will allow the military to control the situation in the future if things get out of hand. It is meant to deal with internal threats like street protests and opposition, and not external ones," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. "It will be like a state within a state."

Gothom Arya, an NLA member who abstained from voting but said he opposed the bill, said the law "lays out a structure which gives extensive power to the military."

He said the law could spark outrage among Muslims in the country's far south, the insurgency-plagued area where it is most likely to be implemented.

ISOC was created during the Cold War when it was known as the Communist Suppression Operations Command to control enemies of the state. Its functions had been reduced in past years, after the collapse of the country's communist movement in the 1980s.

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