Thailand’s army has declared martial law, deploying troops in the heart of Bangkok in a move it said is aimed at stabilising the country after months of unrest.
The surprise operation – which military chiefs insisted is not a coup – puts the army in charge of public security nationwide. The move came amid deepening uncertainty over the nation’s fate and a day after the caretaker prime minister refused to step down in the face of long-running anti-government protests.
Although soldiers entered multiple television stations to broadcast the army’s message, life in the Bangkok remained largely unaffected, with schools, businesses and tourist sites open and traffic flowing as usual.
On a major road in front of one of the country’s most luxurious shopping centres, bystanders watched as soldiers in jeeps with machine guns mounted on them briefly diverted traffic. But the mood was not tense, and passers-by stopped to take photos of the soldiers.
Thailand has been gripped by off-and-on political turmoil since 2006 when former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled in a military coup after being accused of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for the country’s king.
His overthrow triggered a power struggle that continues to this day. In broad terms, it pits Mr Thaksin’s supporters, among a rural majority in the north and north-east, against a conservative establishment in Bangkok and the south.
The army, seen by many as sympathetic to anti-government protesters, has staged 11 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. But by last night it had made no moves to dissolve the country’s constitution or its current caretaker government.
Thailand’s acting prime minister, Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan – who was not consulted beforehand on the army move – called an emergency Cabinet meeting to discuss the situation.
In a statement, Mr Niwattumrong said the government hopes the military action will “bring peace back to the people of every group and every side”.
The military statement was issued yesterday by army chief General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who cited a 1914 law that gives the authority to intervene during times of crisis. He said the military took action to avert street clashes between political rivals which he feared could affect the country’s security.
He said: “The Royal Thai Army intends to bring back peace and order to the beloved country of every Thai as soon as possible. We intend to see the situation resolved quickly.”
Gen Prayuth later called a meeting with senior officials from government agencies, provincial governors and representatives from the country’s independent agencies – but not members of the Cabinet.
The latest round of unrest started last November, when demonstrators took to the streets to try to oust then-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Mr Thaksin’s sister.
She dissolved the lower house of parliament in December in an attempt to ease the crisis, and led a weakened, caretaker government with limited powers afterwards.
Earlier this month, the Thai Constitutional Court ousted Ms Yingluck and nine Cabinet ministers for abuse of power. But the move, which left the ruling party in charge of government, did little to resolve the conflict.
Competing protests in Bangkok have raised concerns of more violence, which were heightened by anti-government protesters who set a Monday deadline for ousting the remnants of the government.
An overnight attack last week on the main anti-government protest site left three dead. It raised the toll since November to 28 dead and drew a strong rebuke from the army chief.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said: “The key will be the army treatment of the two sides. If the army is seen as favouring one side over the other, then we could see the situation spiral and deteriorate. If the army is seen as even-handed … we could actually see the situation improving.”