Bangkok's rush hour traffic was as brutal as ever. The only difference on Thursday evening was that the music playing from everyone's grid-locked radios came from military bands.
On Thursday afternoon, Thailand’s powerful army chief launched a coup – appointing himself acting prime minister, detaining rival political leaders and blocking domestic and international broadcasters. The newly formed National Peace and Order Maintaining Council also imposed an overnight curfew and banned gatherings of more than five people.
Two days after the military stepped in and imposed martial law, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha announced on television that for the 12th time since the country stopped being an absolute monarchy in 1932, armed forces were taking over the government. He said all but for a handful of elements, the constitution – drawn up under a previous coup regime in 2007 - had been suspended.
Thailand protests: Thai army declares martial law
Thailand protests: Thai army declares martial law
A Thai soldier stands in front of a portrait of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej as he patrols near government buildings in Bangkok
A pro-government protester points at a soldier during a cleanup at a pro-government demonstration site on the outskirts of Bangkok
Thai soldiers patrol near government buildings in Bangkok
A soldier walks past barefoot Buddhist monks begging for alms outside a temple near Government House in Bangkok
Thai police and army soldiers stand guard outside a military compound before former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra arrives to report to Thailand's ruling military in Bangkok
Thai soldiers stand guard at a roadblock outside the Defence Ministry building (background) after Thailand's army chief announced that the armed forces were seizing power in Bangkok
Thai soldiers patrol after army chief General Prayut Chan-O-Cha met with anti-government and pro-government leaders at the Army Club in Bangkok
Thai police and military display a haul of weapons seized during recent raids since the imposition of martial law, at a press conference at the Army Club in Bangkok
Thai soldiers stand next to the portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej after the declaration of martial law at the Army Club in Bangkok. Thai Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, declared martial law giving the military full control to prevent further protest-related violence in the country
Anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban (R) gives a traditional greeting to a soldier before leaving Government House in Bangkok. Thailand's army chief said rival political groups should talk to each other and that the martial law imposed would last until peace and order had been restored
A Thai soldier stands outside the Government Public Relations Department in Bangkok
Thai soldiers man a checkpoint near pro-government "red shirt" supporters encampment in suburbs of Bangkok
(L-R) Thai Police Chief Adul Saengsingkaew, Navy Chief Adm Narong Pipattanasai, Army Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha and Air Chief Marshall Prachin Chantong during a meeting at the Army Club in Bangkok. Thailand has been wracked by six months of non-stop protests seeking to topple the government. At least 25 people have died in political-related violence and more than 700 injured
Motorists on their way as Thai soldiers take to the streets with a heavy machine gun on a Humvee military vehicle at a main road outside the Royal Thai Police Sports Club in Bangkok
Outside police headquarters in Bangkok
An anti-government protester waves a Thai national flag during a rally outside the Government House in Bangkok. Thailand's Senate said it was ready to choose an interim prime minister to end a political deadlock but stopped short of throwing out a beleaguered caretaker government and risking a violent backlash by its supporters
Thai anti-government protesters shout slogans during a rally in front of the Parliament as senators debate to find and end to the country's political conflict in Bangkok. Thousands of anti-government protesters rallied the area surrounding parliament and Government House to pressure the Senate to appoint an interim government to institute political reforms before new elections while key Thai institutions are resisting the opposition's demands
Thai anti-government protesters gather in front of the Parliament in Bangkok
Thai riot policemen stand guard during an anti-government protest rally at the Air Force auditorium in Bangkok. Thailand's Election Commission called for the postponement of key parliamentary polls due to be held on 20 July 2014 because of political unrest shaking the kingdom
Anti-government protesters leave an air force base after breaking into its grounds in Bangkok. Protesters seeking to oust Thailand's government broke into the grounds of an air force compound where the acting prime minister was meeting the Election Commission to fix a date for new polls, forcing him to flee
Thai Air Force military (L) face anti-government protesters after they broke into the Royal Thai Air Force base in Bangkok. Hundreds of anti-government protesters broke into the meeting between the election commission and the caretaker government as they discussed for the planned next elections on 15 May 2014, after the results of the 02 February general elections were annulled. According to media reports, Thailand's Election Commission said that the 20 July polling is no longer possible due to political turmoil
Thai anti-government protesters leader Suthep Thaugsuban (C-L) cheers his followers during a street rally march toward Government House and Parliament in Bangkok
An anti-government protester (C) gives instructions to a fellow protester on how to wave a huge Thai flag from atop a barricade near the Government House in Bangkok. Thailand's beleaguered government warned people to stay away from anti-government protests, saying it had to step up security as the two sides in a lengthy political crisis squared off over who is running the country
An anti-government protester looks at a damaged telephone booth after a grenade attack at a protest site outside Government House in Bangkok. Supporters of Thailand's embattled government warned the country's judiciary and Senate against any attempt to install an unelected prime minister, saying it would be a disaster for the nation that could spark civil war
Anti-government protesters making a fist and waving a giant Thai flag, the symbol of the protest, on top of a truck as they rally outside Thai Parliament in a call for the final battle in Bangkok. Protesters marched on many key sites in Bangkok, police fired tear gas and some protesters have been injured. Protest leaders say they are hoping to strike the final blow at the weakened government and usher in a people's council to reform the government
“[The army stepped] to quickly bring the situation back to normal, to let the people have love and unity as in the past, and to reform the political and economic systems, and to grant equality to every side,” he said. “We ask the public not to panic and carry on their lives normally.”
The army said it had enforced the coup in order to preserve law and order, but there is every prospect it will do the opposite. Countless thousands of supporters of the ousted government have said they will march and protest to preserve democracy. Four years ago, more than 90 people were killed in political violence that gripped the centre of Bangkok.
The coup was carried out after the army summoned the leaders of the rival factions in the country’s long-running political stand-off for the second day of talks at a military sports facility in Bangkok. The talks involving the government, the ruling Phua Thai party, the opposition Democrat party, the Red Shirt movement and the anti-government protesters known as the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), had begun on Wednesday but had failed to reach agreement.
Army spokesman Werachon Sukondhapatipak claimed the coup had been declared because the army had been unable to get the different groups to agree a compromise. “They did not agree at the meeting and right now the coup has been taken place,” he told The Independent. “We were trying to get an agreement.”
But many saw Gen Prayuth’s organising of the meeting as nothing less than a clever ploy. As of Thursday evening, the senior leaders of the rival factions remained in army custody and they were unable to answer their phones. A number of leaders of the Red Shirt movement were detained in other locations as well.
“It was premeditated. It was a trick. You don’t detain people because they don’t have an agreement,” said Sean Boonpracong, a political analyst and adviser to the ousted government. “They have disguised things by having martial law and lulling people to sleep. Nobody believed they would be so brazen.”
The army’s action came after months of anti-government protests by the PDRC had undermined the government backed by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Mr Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup but continued to pull the strings from exile in Dubai; his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected in 2011 but she was forced out of office by a controversial judicial body two months ago.
The PRDC have campaigned to oust the Thaksin family from Thailand’s politics, insisting they are corrupt and venal. They have rejected the prospect of more elections until a series of unspecified “reforms” are carried out, claiming that the system is rigged.
Yet other factors are involved. Thailand is a rapidly changing country and the supporters of Mr Thaksin remember him as someone who helped introduce affordable health care and small loans and kick-started their journey into the middle-class. The Red Shirt movement that largely supports him, believes the anti-government protesters want to reduce electoral democracy and restrict political power and the franchise to the wealthy and already powerful.
A number of analysts believe a parallel and inextricably linked factor is the behind-the-scenes power struggle over which member of the royal family will succeed the ailing monarch, 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who controls assets worth more than £18.2bn. Whoever succeeds him will control a huge network of patronage and influence. According to the rules of succession, on the death of the king the throne should pass to Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Some analysts have said the coup could not have been launched without a green light from elements within the powerful establishment surrounding the monarchy and which are considered close to the anti-government protesters. Gen Payuth Chan-ocha is considered an arch-royalist and has been particularly close to Queen Sirikit.
On Thursday evening, the army ordered that both the anti-government protesters and the Red Shirts ended their rallies and shut-down their protest sites, and that the Shinawatras must give themselves up on Friday morning along with 18 former cabinet ministers. The anti-government protesters were allowed to go home while at a Red Shirts’ site to the east of Bangkok there were reports that Red Shirt leaders had been detained.
At an anti-government protest site located in the old quarter of Bangkok there was cheering as people filed away. A man on the stage and speaking into a microphone, declared: “We have beaten the Thaksin system - you can go home.”
One of the protesters, Raynuwi Wichaksanapong, a businesswoman, said the coup would help them secure their aims. “We need reforms before getting a new government,” she said. “A new government will be formed by elections but there need to be reforms first.”
Precisely what will play out over the coming days remains unclear. The army has already ordered that 18 government officials, including the ousted prime minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan, who was not at Wednesday’s meeting, to report to the coup authority.
There had been speculation that the military could use the senate, the upper house of the parliament whose function apparently remains in place, to appoint a successor prime minister, possibly a former army chief. But instead, just before midnight on Thursday, the military announced that Gen Prayuth was assuming that position.
“This is a very dangerous moment because they don’t want an election,” said Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer for the Red Shirts movement, formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), referring to the anti-government side. “They will not hold an election until they can change the rules to make sure the Democrat party wins.”
The international community, which had stopped short of describing Tuesday’s imposition of martial law as a coup, condemned the army’s actions. British Foreign Secretary William Hague, said: “The UK urges the restoration of a civilian government that has been democratically elected, serves the interests of its people and fulfils its human rights obligations.”
The EU expressed “extreme concern” and said there needed to be credible, fair election as soon as possible. In a statement, it added: “The military must accept and respect the constitutional authority of the civilian power as a basic principle of democratic governance.”
The US, which is a strategic ally of Thailand and has very close links with the Royal Thai Army, said it will “review military assistance and engagements with Thailand”, according to the Reuters news agency.