BANGKOK: Thailand’s powerful military chief intervened Tuesday for the first time in the country’s latest political crisis, declaring martial law and dispatching gun-mounted jeeps into the heart of the capital with a vow to resolve the deepening conflict as quickly as possible.
The move stopped short of a coup and left the nation’s increasingly cornered caretaker government intact, along with the constitution.
Despite a stream of army edicts throughout the day that expanded the military’s power and included censorship of news and social media, life continued normally, with residents largely unfazed by the declaration. But the intervention, which follows six months of crippling protests that killed 28 people and wounded over 800, left the country at another precarious crossroads – its fate now squarely in the hands of the military.
“The key going forward will be the military’s role in politics,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “If they play the role of enforcer of law and order and even mediator ... this could be a resolution to the impasse.” But if they don’t, “we can expect protests and turmoil from the losing side.”
Thailand, an economic hub for Southeast Asia whose turquoise waters and idyllic beaches are a world tourist destination, has been gripped by off-and-on political turmoil since 2006, when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled by a military coup after being accused of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for Thailand’s king.
His overthrow triggered a power struggle that in broad terms pits Thaksin’s supporters among a rural majority against a conservative establishment in Bangkok.
The army action came a day after the caretaker prime minister refused to step down, resisting pressure from a group of senators calling for a new interim government with full power to conduct political reforms.
It also followed threats by anti-government protesters to intensify their campaign to oust the ruling party, and an attack last week on rioters that killed three people and wounded over 20.The military, which has staged 11 successful coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, is widely seen as sympathetic to the protest movement. Cabinet ministers said army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha did not consult the government before issuing the surprise announcement Tuesday to take charge of security nationwide.
Although soldiers entered multiple television stations to broadcast the army message, life in this vast skyscraper-strewn metropolis of 10 million people and the rest of the country remained largely unaffected, with schools, businesses and tourist sites open and traffic flowing normally.
In the military announcement, Prayuth cited a 1914 law giving authority to intervene during crises. He said the military was acting to prevent street clashes between political rivals, and that it would “bring back peace and order to the beloved country of every Thai as soon as possible.”
Speaking to reporters later, Prayuth said martial law would last until “there is stability,” and that it was needed to force the two sides to talk about a solution.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Everything will still go on normally. [We] will try not to violate human rights – too much.”
Acting Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan called an emergency Cabinet meeting at an undisclosed location. Afterward, he issued a brief statement saying only that the government hoped the military action would “bring peace back to the people of every group and every side.”
The latest round of unrest started in November, when demonstrators took to the streets to try to oust then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister. She dissolved the lower house of parliament in December in a bid to ease the crisis, and later led a weakened, caretaker government.
Earlier this month, the Constitutional Court ousted Yingluck and nine Cabinet ministers for abuse of power. But the move, which left the ruling party in charge, did little to resolve the conflict.
The protesters want an interim, unelected government to implement vaguely defined reforms to fight corruption – and to remove the Shinawatra family’s influence from politics. Critics at home and abroad call the idea unconstitutional and undemocratic.