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[BANGKOK] Thailand's junta lifted martial law on Wednesday but replaced it with new orders retaining sweeping powers for the military under a section of the interim constitution that has been lambasted by rights groups.
Special security measures - including a ban on political gatherings of more than five people - will continue to blanket the kingdom, which has seen civil liberties eroded since the military declared martial law and seized power from an elected government last May.
"As of now there is a royal order to lift martial law across the kingdom," said an announcement on military television, adding that the controversial law will be replaced with rules under Section 44 of the interim charter.
The royal order comes a day after junta chief and premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha said he had asked the country's ailing 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej for permission to lift the controversial law.
The new measures have been imposed to "handle any actions that will destroy peace and order, and national security, also any violations against the NCPO (junta)", said the announcement late Wednesday.
The generals took over last May after months of often violent street protests that led to the ousting of Yingluck Shinawatra's democratically-elected government.
It marked the latest chapter in a decade of political conflict broadly pitting Bangkok's middle classes and the royalist elite - backed by parts of the military and judiciary - against pro-Shinawatra urban working-class voters and farmers from the country's north.
Under martial law the army has been able to prosecute those accused of national security and royal defamation offences - Thailand has one of the world's strictest lese majeste laws - in military courts with no right of appeal.
On Tuesday Prayut said that while military courts would still be used for security offences post the lifting of martial law, convictions could be appealed to higher tribunals.
However it was not immediately clear from the announcement Wednesday whether the right to appeal had now had been granted, or whether royal defamation cases would continue to be prosecuted through military courts.
The media, which has been muzzled under martial law, still faces censorship with the new announcement saying authorities will have the power to stop the publication or presentation of any news "causing fear or distorted information and creating misunderstanding".
Critics have said Section 44 allows Prayut to wield even greater powers than martial law.
Under the section, he can unilaterally issue orders to suppress "any act that undermines public peace and order or national security, the monarchy, national economics or the administration of state affairs".
Earlier on Wednesday the UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, expressed "strong concerns" about the section while Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, has said it "will mark Thailand's deepening descent into dictatorship".