Thailand: A coup in all but name?

By Arnaud Dubus, Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Army chief announces martial law in Thailand; underlines move 'not a coup' but others disagree

Army chief announces martial law in Thailand; underlines move 'not a coup' but others disagree

BANGKOK - When is a coup not a coup? Perhaps when it's martial law in disguise.

It's a question that Southeast Asian political analysts scrambled to answer Tuesday after Thailand's military chief responded to seven months of political paralysis by declaring martial law and deploying soldiers across the country "to restore law and order for people from all sides."

The intervention is "not a coup," General Prayuth Chan-ocha spelt out -- words that clearly niggled worldwide.

"Prayut’s action smell, taste and look like a coup," political scientist Ji Ungpakorn told the Anadolu Agency from London.

Ungpakorn -- who was once an associate professor of politics at Thailand's prestigious Chulalongkorn University -- has been based in the U.K. since 2009, when he fled Thailand after having been charged with lese-majeste.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun of the Institute of Asian Studies at Kyoto University told the AA that the wording was insignificant, what was important was the outcome.

"It does not matter if you call it a coup or not," he said. "The fact is that the military has already taken control of the situation and interfered in politics." 

"We are now under a military regime and the government can no longer function."

Formally it may not qualify as a coup, as the government has not been dismissed, the constitution not been abolished and the only legislative assembly standing, the Thai Senate, has not been dissolved, but on the street, the view is extremely different.

Armed soldiers are stationed at major intersections, tanks are guarding some TV stations, and stern-looking military officers are reading statements on TV screens -- images that quickly conjure up memories of the numerous coups carried out in the Kingdom since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932.

The military council in charge of implementing martial law, the Peacekeeping Command Centre, has also suspended broadcasting by ten satellite TV channels linked to various political groups. 

"It is now forbidden to write anything which would be deemed to be affecting national security," said Chachavalpongpun.

The fact that the government appears totally powerless increases the coup-like atmosphere. Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan was not consulted by the military before the declaration of martial law, only responding ten hours later with a brief English language statement that read: "military must proceed under the constitution." 

Boonsongpaisan succeeded previous Premier Yingluck Shinawatra after she was dismissed from her position along with nine of her ministers May 7 by the Constitutional Court for abuse of power. 

For seven months, she had been at the center of a crisis that has seen Bangkok reduced to a battleground with elections cancelled, voters bullied, families torn apart, crowds of whistle-blowing protesters blocking thoroughfares, hand grenades lobbed around and 28 people dead -- all after she tried to introduce a 2013 amnesty which would have lifted a 2008 corruption conviction against her brother Thaksin -- a divisive figure who is currently living in exile, mostly in Dubai.

The yellow-shirt wearing anti-government group People's Democratic Reform Committee have been at the forefront of the protests, demanding the entire government's dismissal and the setting up of an unelected "people’s council" to implement reforms to limit the role of elected politicians.

Ungpakorn -- in his early morning email -- highlighted the irony of the military's actions.

"If the military were really concerned with keeping the peace they would have acted against Suthep’s anti-Democrat mobs when they invaded government ministries in order to overthrow the elected government at the end of last year," he said.

Human Rights Watch representative for Thailand Sunai Phasuk didn't directly tackle exactly what had taken place, he was more concerned with what might.

There is nothing to justify such a drastic measure, he told English language daily the Bangkok Post. 

"This is a scary future for Thailand."

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