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.
“[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.
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