BANGKOK – Thailand’s The Royal Thai Army declared martial law Tuesday and deployed troops into the heart of Bangkok in a dramatic move it said was aimed at stabilizing the Southeast Asian country after six months of turbulent political unrest. The military insisted a coup d’etat was not underway.
The surprise, pre-dawn operation, which places the army in charge of public security countrywide, came amid deepening uncertainty over the nation’s fate and one 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 message, life in the vast skyscraper-strewn metropolis of 10 million people 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 malls, bystanders gawked at soldiers in jeeps mounted with machine-guns who briefly diverted traffic. The mood wasn’t tense; passers-by stopped to take cellphone pictures of the soldiers.
Acting Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan called an emergency Cabinet meeting to discuss the situation at an undisclosed location.
Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitisiri told The Associated Press the army had not consulted Niwattumrong beforehand, but he played down the move and said the caretaker government was still running the country even though the army was now in charge of security.
“Security matters will be handled solely by the military, and whether the situation intensifies or is resolved is up to them,” he said. “There is no cause to panic.”
“The Royal Thai Army intends to bring back peace and order to the beloved country of every Thai as soon as possible,” he said. We “intend to see the situation resolved quickly.”
Prayuth later called on government leaders and the country’s powerful independent oversight agencies to meet in the afternoon.
“Martial law is intended to impose peace and order, but the key will be the army treatment of the two sides,” Thitinan said. “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.”
Throughout the morning, the army issued multiple edicts. In one, they asked TV and radio stations to be on standby to interrupt programming for army broadcasts when asked.
At least 10 politically affiliated private TV stations from both sides ceased broadcasting — after armed soldiers entered and requested they do so.
The leader of the pro-government Red Shirt movement, Jatuporn Prompan, said his group could accept the imposition of martial law, but said they “won’t tolerate a coup or other non-constitutional means” to grab power.
“We will see what the army wants,” he said, warning that the undemocratic removal of the country’s caretaker government “will never solve the country’s crisis and will plunge Thailand deeper into trouble.”
Red Shirts had been massing for days on the outskirts of Bangkok, and Jatuporn said his supporters were being “surrounded.” More than 100 soldiers deployed near the rally venue with coils of barbed wire to block roads; they appeared to be taking over control of the area from police and took positions on roads leading to the protest site.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said the U.S. was “very concerned about the deepening political crisis in Thailand.”
We “urge all parties to respect democratic principles, including respect for freedom of speech,” she said. “We expect the Army to honor its commitment to make this a temporary action to prevent violence, and to not undermine democratic institutions.”