Thai military declares coup, imposes curfew

Gen Prayuth, who declared martial law two days ago, announced in a televised national broadcast that the army had to seize power “in order for the country to return to normal quickly".

Thai army soldiers stand guard at the main entrance of the pro-government ''Red Shirts'' rally site after they shut it down and cleared protesters from the site, after Thailand's army chief announced that the armed forces were seizing power, on the outskirts of Bangkok on May 22, 2014. Nicolas Asfouri/AFP Photo
Powered by automated translation

BANGKOK // Fears of further violence mounted after Thailand's army chief took power in a coup, suspended the constitution and declared a nationwide curfew.

Two days after invoking martial law, General Prayuth Chan-ocha took the final step of confirming an official coup at 4.30pm on Thursday, overthrowing the elected government.

“In order for the country to return to normal quickly, the National Peace Keeping Committee comprised of the army, the Thai armed forces, the Royal Air Force and the police, need to seize power,” Gen Prayuth said in a televised national broadcast.

At dusk, the main traffic arteries out of the city were bumper to bumper as residents living in the suburbs tried to get home before the curfew. Both the subway and skytrain also shut down early.

Earlier, Gen Prayuth had convened talks between leaders of the pro- and anti-government groups with the stated intention of mediating reconciliation talks.

The firebrand leader of the anti-government camp, Suthep Thaugsuban, who has led massive protests in Bangkok for nearly seven months, was later seen being detained by soldiers. It was unclear on Thursday night if he was formally under arrest.

There were reports that leaders from both protest camps, as well as representatives from the Pheu Thai Party that had been in power, albeit with an ineffective grip on government in recent weeks, had also been detained.

The army had encircled the camp of pro-government protesters, members of the so-called “Red Shirt” movement, in western Bangkok when martial law was declared on Tuesday.

There were reports that the army was moving on Thursday night to clear out the camp, but as darkness fell there were no reports of injuries or fatalities.

Both the Red Shirt movement and the anti-government movement, known as the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), are known to employ armed guards.

PDRC demonstrators, who had consistently called for the army’s intervention, began to disperse from their main protest site at Democracy Monument in Bangkok after the coup announcement.

Gen Prayuth's rationale for martial law on Tuesday was to prevent further bloodshed, with at least 27 people having been killed in gun and grenade attacks since PDRC protests began in earnest more than six months ago.

The Bangkok Post reported that police had seized several arms caches, including a grenade launcher and assault rifles, in homes in and around Bangkok on Wednesday.

The police linked the weapons to the Red Shirts, saying that several identification cards belonging to the movement’s security guards were also found.

Red Shirt spokesmen have consistently warned of escalated violence in the case of a coup or the appointment of an unelected government.

“What we are most concerned about – that we want to warn all sides against – is a civil war, which we do not want to happen,” Jatuporn Prompan, one of the more prominent Red Shirt leaders, said last month. “It will happen if there is a coup and democracy is stolen.”

Thailand has experienced political turmoil and continued violence since the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled in 2006, the country’s last coup.

Pro-Thaksin parties supported by the Red Shirt movement have won every elections since – and have been removed from power by the courts three times.

The 2006 military coup was almost bloodless, with the only confirmed coup-related death being a taxi driver who rammed a tank in protest.

Political divisions have greatly worsened in the intervening years, with the worst spike in violence in 2010 when Red Shirt protesters occupied a park in central Bangkok.

Almost 90 people were killed in April of that year when the forces of the appointed government – which then included Mr Suthep – cleared the protest camp, and in the ensuing chaos one the city’s main shopping malls was burnt to the ground.

Gen Prayuth was widely seen as reticent to launch a coup despite the recent violence and the PDRC’s calls for intervention. There was speculation by analysts on Thursday that the decision was made after talks broke down, but the two-day period of martial law might have been used to position the armed forces to control a backlash.

Gen Prayuth has been widely identified as leaning towards the PDRC side, although he did work in cooperation with the former Pheu Thai government.

The armed forces on Thursday suspended the 2007 constitution, which was drafted according to guidelines set by the former chief of the armed forces, Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who led the 2006 coup.

As in 2006, the military occupied key media outlets, with pictures showing armed soldiers sitting in the newsroom of The Nation television station, and broadcasting was suspended on Thursday night.

The army had said previously that it would attempt to shut down politicised websites as well.

There was also a Bangkok curfew put into effect from 10pm to 5am.

“All people should remain calm and live their lives as normal,” Gen Prayuth said. “All government officials continue to work in line with their regulations and what they have done before.”

Thursday’s action was Thailand’s 12th military coup since 1932. There are precedents where counter-coup protests have provoked a violent backlash.

The 1991 coup led to the “Black May” events in 1992, when the bloody repression of anti-coup protesters resulted in scores of deaths, many more people “disappeared” and the eventual resignation of the general who had led the coup.