THAILAND – The nationwide curfew imposed across Thailand on Thursday emptied city streets of their population, closed down bars, businesses and restaurants and forcing tens of thousands at tourist resorts across the country to remain in their hotels.
The dramatic move followed the Thai military’s declaration of martial law, defying international pressure by taking over a civilian government which was entrenched in political deadlock.
The head of the military, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, appeared on television, flanked by other armed services chiefs and proclaimed the army would act to resolve those political divisions that have paralysed the state for almost a decade.
Within hours of his appearance TV and radio stations were blocked with the reported threat of an internet and social media blackout to come.
Tourists arriving in the country from Britain and elsewhere were greeted by fleets of vehicles commandeered to ferry visitors after the 10pm start of the curfew between airports and hotels.
The British Foreign Office warned tourists traveling to the country that they needed to be vigilant as there was an increased risk of trouble. There was no extension of the list recommended no-go zones within Thailand.
“There is a risk of a violent reaction to the Army’s announcement. We recommend that you exercise extreme caution and remain alert to the situation,” the advisory said. “You should take extra care and avoid all protest sites, political gatherings, demonstrations and marches.”
The Pentagon announced it had placed military ties with Thailand under review as officials condemned the move. John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, said there was no justification for the takeover, adding the coup would have “negative implications” for the US-Thai relationship.
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, urged Thailand to set out a “quick timetable” to restore a democratically elected civilian government. He said: “The UK urges the restoration of a civilian government that has been democratically elected, serves the interests of its people and fulfills its human rights obligations.”
Local broadcasting news was suspended and foreign channels, including CNN and the BBC, were removed from cable services.
The announcement that citizens should not go outdoors between 10pm and 5am triggered confusion in Bangkok
Long lines formed at the city’s elevated train and subway stations as panicked office workers tried to rush home before the curfew.
Tourists used Twitter to update traffic conditions, indicating that the congestion continued hours after the curfew commenced. Pictures from the capital’s Khao San Road showed the tourist thoroughfare deserted.
In the big tourist resorts around the country, implementation of the curfew varied but was generally observed.
“Chiang Mai is mostly shut down now, though. Most bars closed, very few taxis,” wrote Derek Neumeier, a Canadian writer.
Gen Prayuth made the coup announcement following an unproductive conference of all rival factions to find a way of ending the latest bout of anti-government protests.
Gen Prayuth had demanded that closed-door talks that started on Wednesday hammer out a compromise between pro-and anti-government factions hinging on the appointment of an interim prime minister, political reforms and the timing of an election.
He hinted at the pressure he was under to make a telling intervention on the crisis before his scheduled retirement in September.
“I want to see every problem settled within this forum before I retire,” Gen Prayuth said. “I don’t want my juniors to take up this job.”
Dr Liam McCarthy, a south east Asia specialist at Nottingham Trent University, said: “Military intervention always appears unpalatable, however the current political climate raises the possibility of an equally unpalatable alternative.
“Thai politics is polarised and the factions have not been ready, willing, or able to reach an amicable solution. In the face of escalating tensions. Prayuth has taken a rather paternal role, intervening before it gets worse. Prayuth’s statement that he ‘will not allow Thailand to be like Ukraine or Egypt’ is a telling one, it speaks to his fears for Thailand’s future.”
Leading politicians who had attended the general’s talks were in detention on Thursday night including Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan, the acting prime minister, and Abhisit Vejjajiva, an opposition former prime minister.
The army also banned gatherings of more than five people but a full scale assault on the big protest sites had not emerged.
The mood however at the anti-government encampment outside Government House in Bangkok was jubilant. The Yellow shirt followers dismantled tents and food stalls following army orders to disperse. Those from outside Bangkok said they would be sent back to their homes in army buses.
“I’m happy. We have won. The army has done a great job for us. This is our victory. We can go home now,” said Sasilak Srisonboon, 55,
Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned the new authorities that they could not act with impunity despite taking on extraordinary power. She said: “We urge the authorities to take all necessary measures to ensure the fundamental human rights are respected.”
Tourism executives were told that up to 6,000 vehicles would be made available at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, by far the country’s biggest, to help tourists reach their hotels.
As in previous coups, these travellers will be allowed to move between the airport and their hotels, according to a military spokesman.