Martial law declared in Thailand

By Arnaud Dubus, Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Army underlines move is 'not a coup'; martial law allows it to take control of security, but is supposed to leave government in charge of other tasks

Army underlines move is 'not a coup'; martial law allows it to take control of security, but is supposed to leave government in charge of other tasks

BANGKOK - After seven months of political strife, the Thai army declared martial law across Thailand on Tuesday, but was quick to stress that the move was "not a coup".

Thai army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha said the measure had been invoked “to restore peace and order for people from all sides.” 

The move “is not a coup,” he added. Thailand's 100-year-old Martial Law Act allows the military to take control of security, but is supposed to leave the government in charge of other tasks. 

In a surprise predawn move, soldiers commandeered the main Bangkok intersections and secured all television stations, ordering them to broadcast the statements of the Peace-Keeping Command Centre (PKCC) - the name of the military agency set up to implement martial law.

Ten satellite channels run by pro and anti-government groups were then ordered to cease broadcasting, while other television stations were allowed to continue.

While some Thais remained indoors, the measure rekindling memories of violent incidents in Thailand's past, others took to the streets of Bangkok, residents and tourists happily stopping and posing for photographs with troops, some snapping "selfies" with soldiers and their guns in the background.

Sunai Phasuk, the Human Rights Watch representative in Thailand, told the Bangkok Post that there was nothing to justify such a drastic measure.

"Media cannot function properly and checks and balances mechanisms are taken away in the hands of a single person," said Phasuk. "This is a scary future for Thailand."

At midday, the PKCC called all heads of government offices, state enterprises and representatives of professional and social organizations to an afternoon meeting.

Technically, the civilian government, which has been led by former commerce minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan since the May 7 removal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra by the Constitutional Court for abuse of power, is still operational, but the government center to monitor the security situation has been dissolved by the army.

However, the appearance of soldiers inside TV stations and the complete absence of a civilian government certainly presented a coup-like atmosphere, even if analysts consider that Thailand has not yet reached that point.

“It's not yet clear what will happen," Gothom Arya, the director of the Human rights and peace studies institute at Mahidol University, told the Anadolu Agency on Tuesday. 

"If the army begins to exert direct control on political affairs, it would definitely be more than martial law, it would be a tacit coup, but if it limits itself to the security domain, we [Thailand] remain within the boundaries of martial law.”

The U.S. was among the first to respond, saying early Tuesday that the declaration must be temporary and not undermine democracy. 

“We urge all parties to respect democratic principles, including respect for freedom of speech,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.

The Thai military has a long history of intervention in politics, with 18 coups carried out since the abolition of the absolute monarchy in 1932. 

The last coup in 2006 overthrew then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother. It started a lengthy political crisis that still continues today. However, this time, the military had appeared reluctant to intervene.

The PKCC has asked pro-government and anti-government protestors to stay at their current locations and not to march across the city. 

"Red Shirts" - supporters of the government - have gathered in a northwestern Bangkok suburb, United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) Leader Jatuporn Phromphan asking them to stay mobilized and “to greet soldiers with smiles.” 

Phromphan said the imposition of martial law is allowed under Thai law, but called for General Chan-ocha to make sure an election is held quickly to restore democracy.

He urged General Chan-ocha to invite all sides to the table - including the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) - to explore ways for the country to escape the crisis.

PDRC demonstrators, meanwhile, have cancelled all plans to march across Bangkok.

Mahidol University's Arya said the PDRC would no doubt welcome the declaration of martial law. 

“I think the opposition [to the military] will come rather from the Red shirts side," he told AA. "The PDRC was waiting for something like this. They are celebrating on the Internet. They give the impression that martial law helps their objective.”

The PDRC has been campaigning for the appointment by the Senate and judges of a “neutral prime minister” in order to launch a vast reform of the political system, which would fight vote-buying, reduce the role of elected politicians and increase the role in politics of judges and bureaucrats.

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