Martial law or a coup? Thailand’s army chief reluctantly intervenes

Analysts are already calling the Thai military's declaration of martial law a “soft coup”, or at least the first step on a slippery slope. Jeremy Walden-Schertz reports from Bangkok.
The Thai army’s presence has been concentrated around the two rival protest camps and at broadcast media outlets that are deemed sympathetic to pro- or anti-government protesters. Thailand’s Gen Prayuth declared martial law in the early hours of May 20, 2014. Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters
The Thai army’s presence has been concentrated around the two rival protest camps and at broadcast media outlets that are deemed sympathetic to pro- or anti-government protesters. Thailand’s Gen Prayuth declared martial law in the early hours of May 20, 2014. Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters

BANGKOK // By all appearances, Thailand’s army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha really did not want to leave the barracks.

As major anti-government protests persisted in Bangkok for nearly seven months, punctuated by frequent grenade and small-arms attacks that killed at least 27, Gen Prayuth was under increasing pressure to intervene – ostensibly to restore public order, although many presumed the general would favour the anti-government movement.

As recently as May 9, Gen Prayuth said that a coup would not solve the political impasse and on Tuesday, as martial law was declared in the early hours, the military was trying to stick to the same party line. “This is not a coup d’etat,” the first announcement on army-run TV stated, “the public do not need to panic but can still live their lives as normal.”

Analysts are already calling the move a “soft coup”, or at least the first step on a slippery slope, but there are some fine distinctions between martial law and a coup that seem to support the army statement.

Gen Prayuth said later in the day that the government of acting prime minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan would remain, although its powers of governance remained unclear. In practice, since a court evicted Mr Niwatthamrong’s predecessor, Yingluck Shinawatra, from office on May 7 on abuse of power charges, the government has been essentially paralysed. The civil bureaucracy, with theoretically limited oversight from the military, will keep functioning.

One of the lessons of the 2006 coup, which deposed Ms Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra and sent him into exile – one of his residences is in Dubai – was that the military does not govern well. The caretaker government, at first known as the Council for Democratic Reform, was widely pilloried as inefficient and the subsequent 2007 elections saw pro-Thaksin politicians returned to power.

The other obvious takeaway is that military intervention resets the clock but does not solve Thailand’s long-term political division. Gen Prayuth’s apparent reluctance and the distinction of martial law learns from that lesson, and the international opprobrium rained down upon Thailand, once considered one of South-East Asia’s more robust democracies.

The justification offered by Gen Prayuth that public safety was in danger will resonate widely among Thais, particularly in Bangkok.

In recent weeks, pro-government protesters known as “red shirts” have set up camp in the capital, with one senior leader, Jatuporn Prompan, threatening repeatedly the group would “escalate the fight” and warning of possible civil war. The anti-government protesters, which previously had urged military intervention, was conducting a campaign to “hunt down” government ministers this week.

Gen Prayuth is scheduled to retire on September 30 and analysts had widely reported that he did not want a coup to be his legacy. How he will be judged – and indeed if this martial law decree is later defined as a coup – will depend on the perception of the military’s bias.

At present, Bangkok is relatively quiet, with many Thais inured to the interminable political turmoil. The army’s presence has been concentrated around the two rival protest camps and at broadcast media outlets that are deemed sympathetic to pro- or anti-government protesters.

The perception, at least, of impartiality will be crucial in coming days, particularly given Mr Jatuporn’s fiery warnings about his group’s response to a coup. But even if the army can prevent violence in the near future, as many hope it will, there seems little prospect for a more lasting political solution, although Gen Prayuth has urged both sides to sit down for talks.

It will be the success or failure of the elusive political solution that will ultimately dictate whether this “martial law” is remembered as Thailand’s twelfth coup. “Don’t worry,” Gen Prayuth said on Tuesday. “Everything will still go on normally. [We] will try not to violate human rights – too much.’’

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: May 20, 2014 04:00 AM

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