Thailand looked to be racing towards a cliff edge after the military took control of the country, imposed martial law and curtailed the rights of the media. While the army said it was just a temporary measure taken to ensure order, many said its behaviour amounted to a de facto coup in a nation that has seen many.
With jeeps bearing machine guns taking up positions in the capital, the army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced that, for the 19th occasion, the military was imposing martial law after a stand-off between the government and anti-government protesters. It has left an enfeebled caretaker civilian government in place, but it remains unclear how long it will stay in power.
With pro-government supporters and foreign governments calling for the military to honour its commitment that this will be only a short-term measure, it is likely the next 24 hours will be crucial in determining whether or not the army intends fully to take charge of the country. The army has said it is going to try to bring together both sides, but warned that martial law would remain until the situation had calmed.
“The army has said it is going to be holding meetings today and trying to negotiate a deal,” said one Western diplomat in Thailand.
Gen Prayuth claimed his decision to impose martial law was based on a 1914 law, from a time when the country was an absolute monarchy. The current constitution, formulated in 2007, has no provision for such action. “The army intends to bring peace to the beloved country of all Thais as soon as possible,” he said in a televised address. “We urge people from every group to stop their movement in order to quickly find a sustainable solution for the country.”
The senior officer insisted he had not launched a coup and that the caretaker government, headed by Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan, remained in place. Yet the army issued a flurry of decrees – threatening the media, banning demonstrations – and shut down more than 10 television channels associated with the pro and anti-government sides. Mr Niwatthamrong called an emergency cabinet meeting. Afterwards, he issued a statement saying the government hoped the military action will “bring peace back to the people of every group”.
Human Rights Watch said that for the all the claims to the contrary by the military, it had enacted a “de facto coup”. “The military has pulled a 100-year-old law off the shelf that makes the civilian administration subordinate to the military, effectively rendering the executive, legislative and judicial branches powerless,” said HRW’s Brad Adams.
A government adviser, Sean Boonpracong, told The Independent that the military had not informed the government of its plans in advance. “There was nothing like that,” he said.
The military’s action follow the ousting last month by a court of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former premier who himself was ousted in a coup in 2006. The court’s decision that led to Ms Yingluck’s departure followed months of debilitating protests by anti-government demonstrators who have boycotted elections and demanded the appointment of a “neutral” premier.
The unrest dates back to the 2006 ousting of Mr Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon. His so-called Red Shirt supporters consist largely, but not exclusively, of working-class Thais, particularly from the north and east.
On the other hand, the anti-government protesters, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, consist of middle-class residents of Bangkok, farmers from the south, and elements of the establishment that surrounds Thailand’s monarchy. They are being led Suthep Thaugsuban, a former parliamentarian and deputy prime minister who quit the opposition Democrat Party to head the protests.
“I hope that this move helps Mr Suthep,” said Nita Yingyoskanjornchai, a retired jewellery shop worker who was among protesters at an anti-government site in Bangkok.
This evening, Bangkok appeared calm and the army had not imposed any curfews. But the veneer of normality hides a political crisis that appears to have no easy solution and which has previously turned all-too bloody. Twenty-eight people have been killed and 700 injured since the most recent round of anti-government protests began last year.
Currently, both pro and anti-government protesters are camping at different places in the capital and, to prevent clashes, the army told them they had to stay put and could not march.
The pro-government Red Shirts know they will win any election, which is why the anti-government protesters do not want to have one, at least until a series of reforms have been carried out. Meanwhile, Mr Thaksin, living in exile in Dubai, continues to pull the strings of both the Pheu Thai government and its associated Red Shirt movement.
It was reported that a senior leader of the Red Shirts, or the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, had expressed his willingness to meet Mr Suthep. Jatuporn Prompan told a rally that he was happy to meet, as long as Gen Prayuth was mediating.
“I and my group have no personal conflict with Suthep,” he said, according to the Bangkok Post.
Yet Mr Suthep, who was seen shaking hands with a military officer today, appeared less keen. In a message posted on social media he urged his supporters to keep up the pressure to try and force out the government. “Don’t cheer yet – we have not yet won. We still don’t have a new PM,” he said.
The international community has called for elections to be held as soon as possible. “The priority now is to set a clear timetable for early elections and establish as soon as possible a fully functioning government with democratic legitimacy,” the EU said in a statement.
A total of 73 foreign diplomats who were briefed about the situation by Thailand’s foreign ministry were told the army only intended to retain martial law for a limited time. Yet there was no indication of how long that might take and no mention of a possible election.
The US, which is the main backer of Thailand’s military, called on Gen Prayuth to stand by his undertaking that this was a short measure. After the coup of 2006, the US halted aid to Thailand. “We expect the army to honour its commitment to make this a temporary action to prevent violence, and to not undermine democratic institutions,” said a spokeswoman for the US State Department.
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