Intervention just latest instalment in Thai crisis

Toxic politics leaves little alternative to martial law

An activists protesting in Bangkok yesterday  against the declaration of martial law and the army’s involvement in politics. Photograph: Damir Sagolj/Reuters

An activists protesting in Bangkok yesterday against the declaration of martial law and the army’s involvement in politics. Photograph: Damir Sagolj/Reuters


“The public do not need to panic but can still live their lives as normal. This is not a coup,” ran the announcement by army chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha on Thai TV yesterday, a station now run by the military.

For the umpteenth time, soldiers took up positions at key intersections in the capital, watched by concerned locals and bemused tourists. While there is no curfew, this is still martial law.

“There will be a centre to control order, headed by the army chief,” said Gen Prayuth. “The centre can enforce any law under the martial law act to control the situation effectively.”

Thailand is a great country for silent coups – and perhaps it is only semantics separating the current intervention by the military – the first since 2006, when then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was removed in a military putsch – and another low-key shift of power.

Power broker
“Whilst the military’s decision to declare martial law is a surprise, it is not unprecedented,” said Dr Liam McCarthy, an expert on southeast Asia at Nottingham Trent University.

The army is the traditional power broker in Thailand. But it has claimed many times that it is no longer comfortable with a role it has created for itself, of intervening to restore order on an alarmingly frequent basis – the military has staged 18 coups or attempted coups, overseen 23 military governments and nine governments dominated by the military, in 82 years of stop-start democracy in Thailand. The constitution that overtook a 1997 charter seen as Thailand’s most democratic constitution, was written by the army.

“After the legal removal of [former prime minister and sister of Thaksin] Yingluck Shinawatra earlier this month, tensions were running high. The victory for the urban elites was condemned by the Shinawatra-supporting Red Shirts and their protests were escalating,” said McCarthy.

“This poses a threat to the security of Thailand, both in terms of the safety of the people, and the integrity of the state. The military intervention may be seen as an attempt to stop the descent into violence and maintain Thailand’s regional and global reputation, both politically and economically. Whether this is merely a short-term attempt to resolve the current crisis, or a more permanent seizing of power is yet to be seen.”

Political malaise
John Blaxland, a senior fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in Canberra,

said the Thai crisis “seems to have reached a tipping point”.

“The one institution that remains the arbiter of power in Thailand is the military. The politics have gotten so toxic there aren’t many viable alternatives to martial law,” he told Bloomberg.

The human rights group Amnesty International said the military in Thailand must ensure that human rights are protected and respected, following the imposition of martial law granting such sweeping powers.

The army has already used its powers under the decree to impose sweeping restrictions on freedom of expression prohibiting media from reporting stories “detrimental to national security” and has taken at least 10 television stations off air, most of them linked to pro- or anti-government groups.

“The military’s moves to impose tight restrictions on independent media are deeply worrying. National security must not be used as a pretext to silence the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression, and we urge the military to give media in Thailand the space to carry out their legitimate work,” said Amnesty International’s Asia director Richard Bennett.

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