Army takes charge of divided Thailand as critics decry a silent coup

Thailand's Army chief denies that he's staged a coup, insisting that he would return power to civilians provided warring political factions can strike a deal to end months of destabilizing protests.

Sakchai Lalit/AP
Motorcyclists drive past Thai soldiers stationed outside the Thai police headquarters Tuesday, May 20, 2014, in Bangkok, Thailand. Thailand's army declared martial law before dawn Tuesday in a surprise announcement it said was aimed at keeping the country stable after six months of sometimes violent political unrest.

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Thailand’s Army imposed martial law early Tuesday, effectively establishing military control and raising questions of whether this will inflame or cool political conflict after six months of anti-government protests.

Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha announced the decision in a 6:30 a.m. television broadcast. He declared that the move was not a military coup, and urged residents to remain calm. About 11 partisan television stations were ordered to stop broadcasts. 

Despite its denial, critics have warned that the Army's action could be seen as a silent coup against a weak interim government. Thailand has seen 18 coup attempts (11 of them successful), since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. Adding to suspicions of a military takeover, the imposition of martial law reportedly occurred without warning for the civilian government.

Prayuth said martial law was necessary for “the country to move forward to peace and order as soon as possible,” and that “we will not allow bloodshed in the country.” 

At least 25 people have been killed since protests broke out six months ago between anti- and pro-government supporters, roughly divided between largely rural supporters of ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra and the mostly urban establishment who view him and his allies as corrupt. They want unspecified political reforms before new elections are held. Elections held in February were later annulled after the opposition boycotted the poll and protesters picketed polling stations. 

“The political crisis seems to have reached a tipping point,” John Blaxland, a senior fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in Canberra told Bloomberg News. “The one institution that remains the arbiter of power in Thailand is the military. The politics have gotten so toxic there aren’t many viable alternatives to martial law.” 

Prayuth said that he would maintain martial law for as long as it was necessary and that he would call a meeting with all parties of the political conflict, but did not give time frames for either, reports the Wall Street Journal.

However, the Straits Times, citing Reuters, reports that Thailand's interim prime minister has asked the election commission to schedule an election on Aug. 3. 

Martial law appeared to have little immediate effect on Thai citizens. Commuters posed for pictures by soldiers who are stationed at major intersections, shopping malls, and protest sites throughout Bangkok.

The Army is particularly sensitive to ensure its actions are not viewed as a coup, The Economist's Banyan blog writes. Its last coup in 2006 to remove Mr. Shinawatra was internationally condemned and led to angry protests from supporters who had elected him twice: 

The army will be keen to keep it regarded as a “non-coup” to prevent Thailand’s being cut off from international capital markets, and to prevent its officers’ prosecution at a later date. “What’s happened is that the army has given itself the legal means of achieving an army coup”, says Paul Chambers, an expert on the Thai army at Chiang Mai University’s Institute for South-East Asian Affairs. 

There’s been a perception that Thailand can consistently rebound from political strife, but the persistent conflict is building up into a deeper wound, the Financial Times writes:

But everything’s going to be OK in the end, isn’t it? This is the Land of Smiles, where happiness has a thousand faces. 

That’s always been the view of some Thais, especially among the elite, as well as the many investors who still seem prepared to ride out the bumps that southeast Asia’s second-largest economy has delivered for years. Fitch, the rating agency, says martial law might even help break the political deadlock. But every fresh escalation adds to the anger at the heart of what is a deep and complex struggle for the future of Thai society. Some parts of the battle are open, such as the campaign by government supporters against what they see as the elite’s continued contempt for their string of election victories. Other elements, such as the question of whether the ageing King Bhumibol Adulyadej is succeeded by his son the Crown Prince or not, bubble underneath and remain mostly unspoken, thanks to strict lèse-majesté laws carrying jail sentences of up to 15 years.

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