BANGKOK (Reuters) - A sweeping new security measure in Thailand that has replaced martial law does not give the army more control than it had previously, Thailand's army chief said on Thursday, following criticism that the junta has significantly increased its powers.
The comments came on the same day the United Nations human rights chief said that the Thai military government had replaced martial law "with something even more draconian" and called for a return to civilian rule.
Thailand's tourism industry, which suffered from months of protests in 2014 and a May coup, may welcome the end of martial law, but the decree that has replaced it has drawn considerable criticism from those who say it gives the army absolute power.
The measure will allow soldiers to detain people for up to seven days without a court warrant, prohibits political gatherings, allows for media censorship and for the junta to try civilians in military tribunals.
Some academics, rights groups and jurists said it grants virtually identical powers to the junta as under martial law.
Army chief General Udomdej Sitabutr denied the decree was harsher than martial law.
"It will be a positive thing and those who have good intentions will not be affected," said Udomdej. "This law is to protect against those who think badly because there are still people who think differently," said Udomdej.
"If you look at the details of Article 44 you will see that it is not stronger than martial law."
Thailand's army imposed martial law in May, days before a May 22 coup, saying it needed to maintain order after six months of violent unrest and anti-government demonstrations. Among other things, the law banned all political gatherings.
Martial law did not appear to affect everyday life in Thailand and there was limited military presence on the streets.
However, it allowed soldiers to detain hundreds of junta critics without charge.
The junta, or National Council for Peace and Order, lifted martial law in a televised statement late on Wednesday and brought into force Article 44 of the interim constitution.
The article gives the junta leader absolute power to give any order deemed necessary to "... strengthen public unity and harmony" or to prevent any act that undermines public peace.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein said in a statement the decision to lift martial law "leaves the door wide open to serious violations of fundamental human rights" and "annihilates freedom of expression".
(Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)