Thai-Muslim civilians gather with banners to support new decree
The government of Thailand has imposed new emergency powers in three Muslim-dominated provinces in the South to deal with 18 months of violence there. The Thai cabinet approved the measures amidst protests from civic groups, opposition politicians and journalists.

The emergency law allows Thai authorities to detain suspects without charge, listen in on phone calls, ban public protests and censor the news media. The law also gives legal immunity to officials who engage in such acts.

Government spokesman Chalermdej Jombunud says the new law, which replaces martial law, puts the security forces in the affected provinces directly under the command of a civilian.

"The deputy prime minister will be the one in charge," he said. "That means he can order the army, the police, the officials in any ministry that is working in the three provinces."

The law was approved by the cabinet and enacted by royal decree after coordinated attacks by dozens of militants last Thursday killed two policemen and wounded more than 20 people in Yala province. The new powers are intended to quell 18 months of violence, including fire-bombings, drive-by shootings and beheadings, in which more than 800 people have been killed.

The new law has also raised protests from civic groups, intellectuals and journalists, who fear that it could be applied to other parts of Thailand and could weaken democratic institutions.

The head of the Thai Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee, Kraisak Choonhavan, says the new law is not needed.

"Emergency law should not replace martial law," he said. "In fact, the argument goes that the existing laws on treason, criminal law, laws against terrorism, it is more than enough."

Critics also protest that the law was enacted by decree last week while parliament was not in session.

The Thai government in recent months has pursued a policy of dialogue in the mostly Muslim region, where a long-dormant separatist movement reappeared last year.

A reconciliation commission recently recommended lifting martial law to lessen public resentment toward the central government of the predominantly Buddhist country. Commission members say they fear that the new law will aggravate tensions, and have urged the government to use it with restraint.