General Prayuth Chan-ocha, chief of the Thai army, is at pains to explain he did not stage a coup at 3 a.m. Tuesday morning. The imposition of martial law, he says, is merely an intervention to restore order and break the deadlock between the elected government and royalist protesters. Acting Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan remains officially in charge.
That’s laughable, as Gen. Prayuth showed when reporters asked about the status of the government. “And where is this government?” he joked.
Now the army has given itself unlimited powers for an indefinite period. Sure sounds like a coup.
Moreover, there is no public safety justification for the generals’ action. Thailand may be wracked by political conflict, but it remains largely peaceful. Even when protesters derailed a general election in February, the troops stayed in their barracks. If there is a political vacuum in Bangkok, the army and other elite-controlled institutions created it.
So why did Gen. Prayuth act now? One clue is the way Mr. Niwatthamrong has gone on calling for new elections later this year. The military and the aristocracy need to close off that possibility.
… The only way forward for Thailand is to go back to the voters for a new mandate.
“The way to secure Thailand’s peace and prosperity is through full respect for democratic principles and engagement in democratic processes,” the statement continues, and adds: “The Secretary-General urges all sides to exercise utmost restraint, refrain from any violence and fully respect human rights.”
General Prayuth faces a daunting challenge: to cajole some form of reconciliation in a society split between the old-money elites in Bangkok who are backing the antigovernment demonstrators and a populist governing party with a power base in the provinces, led by a nouveau riche tycoon, Thaksin Shinawatra.
The last military coup was in 2006, and it overthrew the same political movement that dominates the country today. But analysts say the current impasse is more intractable than anything the military has taken on in the past.
What happened on Monday in Thailand appears to be a soft coup, martial law has been imposed and the Army is in control of the streets and television stations.
… India’s solidarity with the people of one of the working democracies of the region, a prosperous one with close trade ties and strong bilateral bonds should be reflected in our hope that democracy will get back on its feet fast.
… The obvious way out would be for free and fair polls and India could offer assistance. The problem lies in Thai society having showed an inclination not to trust the popular vote, which the billionaire Shinawatras still command with the poor backing them. Any civilian government that lives under the shadow of the military intervention would only be beholden to the military top brass.
In the dead of night, Thailand’s military has used a 100-year-old law to declare martial law across the country. General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army’s commander, has said it did not overthrow the government, so this cannot be Thailand’s 19th successful coup.
Should the military move quickly and call an immediate election, perhaps it would pass the “duck test”. Yet that seems highly unlikely. So, for the moment, the declaration of martial law looks like a coup and probably is.
Aspects of this military action bear striking similarities with the last coup in September 2006…. Back then, the conservative elite was in broad agreement on the need to get rid of Thaksin.
The palace’s support for that coup was a major element in elite solidarity. This time, the palace has been quieter, although several privy councillors, and others known to have links to the Privy Council, have been grumbling. It seems doubtful that the military would have acted without being sure of support in the highest places.
There are other similarities. First, the justification provided for martial law, enacted without consultation with the interim government, is remarkably similar.
Back in 2006, the military stated that it overthrew the government to prevent bloody clashes between the Thaksin government and royalist protesters known as yellow shirts. Of course, that was a concocted scenario. The palace and military had been hatching the plot for months.
Tuesday’s enactment of martial law was also said to be in response to supposedly pending clashes. Given that there has been sporadic violence for the past seven months, this claim appears as spurious as it was in 2006.
A second similarity is that the initial target of the intervention in 2006, and again today, was government supporters. The red shirt demonstration on the outskirts of Bangkok, which has been large but entirely peaceful, has been surrounded by troops. The police, also seen to be pro-government, witnessed armed soldiers surround their headquarters for several hours.
A third similarity is that anti-government protesters appear to have applauded and welcomed the military. It is likely that the business community will again support military intervention because the long months of anti-government activism have undermined the economy.
Ironically, many of Thailand’s major businesses have supported the demonstrations that have done the economic damage. This reflects the fact that much of the business class is bound to the conservative elite.
… The 2006 coup ended Thailand’s tenuous, elite-negotiated political consensus. There has since been remarkable political mobilisation…. The colour-coded demonstrations have tended to simplify a more complex political dystopia born of political and economic inequality, status and class-based conflict and even ethnic animosities that were long thought forgotten.
This grand unravelling has exposed the foundations of these inequalities and conflicts. Major institutions have been brought undone, mainly through their own audacious declarations of political bias: the judiciary’s double standards have been revealed; the monarchy is embroiled in political conflict; and “independent” agencies have been shown to be hopelessly prejudiced.
… An election within a suitable timeframe will likely reduce the potential for clashes. Anything else is likely to be dangerous.
Without an election, the military’s actions will, at best, further undermine Thailand’s electoral democracy. At worst, division, conflict and crisis will likely deepen.
Update: The Economist:
AT 3AM Thailand’s army, the institution that determines the fate of the country’s civilian governments, declared martial law.
It invoked a draconian 100-year-old law that was most recently used by Sarit Thanarat, a military dictator, following his second coup in 1958.
… It may look like one, it may sound like one, but the army insists this is not a coup, and that the civilian government is still in place. It dissolved the Centre for the Administration of Peace and Order (CAPO), the government agency tasked with overlooking security. A so-called “Peace-Keeping Command Centre” now enforces martial law.
The army will be keen to keep its move regarded as a “non-coup” to prevent Thailand’s being cut off from international capital markets, and to prevent its officers’ prosecution at a later date. “What’s happened is that the army has given itself the legal means of achieving an army coup”, says Paul Chambers, an expert on the Thai army at Chiang Mai University’s Institute for South-East Asian Affairs. [PPT: we are not sure what “legal” means here. Nothing we see is legal and the disdain for legalities is clear]
… [M] martial law is something like a last ditch effort on the part of Mr Suthep’s sponsors. He had been playing the role of a front man for the old Thai establishment—representing the street-level id of the civil service, the army, the judiciary and the monarchy—and he has failed to deliver.
Regardless of the pretext or intention, the martial law imposed by the Royal Thai Army today infringes on the rights of Thai citizens and should be repealed without delay.
… The military has insisted that this is not a coup. But coup or no coup, the martial law is already restricting a number of human rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Thai constitution.
There is no basis for Gen. Prayuth to impose the martial law. Although there has been sporadic violence over the past few months, the situation has not reached the full-scale “unrest” that Gen. Prayuth said last week was the condition for a military intervention.
Thailand’s martial law explicitly says that it may only be declared by the military in a time of war or insurrection. Neither is happening in Thailand at the moment.
On the first day of the martial law regime alone, at least 14 TV stations and local radio stations were shut down by the POMC, ostensibly to avoid dissemination of “distorted” information to the public.
… Direct military intervention rarely ends well in Thailand. The fact that Gen. Prayuth decided to impose the martial law on the 4th anniversary of the unrest in 2010 — in which more than 90 people were killed in the clashes between the army and Redshirt protesters — is particularly uncouth. One can only wonder whether the military has learned its lesson.