Thailand's powerful military chief intervened Tuesday for the first time in the country's latest political crisis, declaring martial law and dispatching gun-mounted jeeps into the heart of the capital with a vow to resolve the deepening conflict as quickly as possible.
The move stopped short of a coup and left the nation's increasingly cornered caretaker government intact, along with the constitution. Life continued normally with residents unfazed by the news, which follows six months of crippling protests that killed 28 people and injured more than 800.
But the intervention left the country at another precarious crossroads — its fate now squarely in the hands of the military.
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"The key going forward will be the military's role in politics," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "If they play the role of enforcer of law and order and even mediator ... this could be a resolution to the impasse."
But if they don't, "we can expect protests and turmoil from the losing side."
Thailand, an economic hub for Southeast Asia whose turquoise waters and idyllic beaches are a world tourist destination, has been gripped by off-and-on political turmoil since 2006, when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled by a military coup after being accused of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for Thailand's king.
'"Don't worry," he said. "Everything will still go on normally. (We) will try not to violate human rights — too much."' - Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha, Thai army chief
His overthrow triggered a power struggle that in broad terms pits Thaksin's supporters among a rural majority against a conservative establishment in Bangkok.
The army action came one day after Thailand's caretaker prime minister refused to step down, and followed new threats by anti-government protesters to intensify their campaign to oust the ruling party by next week.
The military, which has staged 11 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, is widely seen as sympathetic to the protest movement. Cabinet ministers said army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha did not consult the government before issuing the surprise announcement Tuesday to take charge of security nationwide.
Although soldiers entered multiple television stations to broadcast the army message, life in the vast skyscraper-strewn metropolis of 10 million people and the rest of the country remained largely unaffected, with schools, businesses and tourist sites open and traffic flowing normally.
Selfies with soldiers
Near one of Bangkok's most luxurious shopping malls, bystanders stopped to snap smiling selfies of themselves with armed soldiers in jeeps and Humvees.
In the military announcement, Prayuth cited a 1914 law giving authority to intervene during crises. He said the military was acting to prevent street clashes between political rivals, and that it would "bring back peace and order to the beloved country of every Thai as soon as possible."
Speaking to reporters later, Prayuth said martial law would last until "the country is safe and there is stability," and that it would provide the two sides the opportunity to talk about a solution.
"Don't worry," he said. "Everything will still go on normally. (We) will try not to violate human rights — too much."
Acting Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan called an emergency Cabinet meeting at an undisclosed location. Afterward, he issued a brief statement saying only that the government hopes the military action will "bring peace back to the people of every group and every side."
Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang, however, said in a post on his Facebook page that martial law was not an answer and warned it could "eventually spiral into a situation in which the military has no choice but to stage a coup."
Thailand's problems are "fundamentally political problems that must be solved through political processes under democracy ... not military or security measures," Chaturon said.
The latest round of unrest started last November, when demonstrators took to the streets to try to oust then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister. She dissolved the lower house of parliament in December in a bid to ease the crisis, and later led a weakened, caretaker government.
Earlier this month, the constitutional Court ousted Yingluck and nine Cabinet ministers for abuse of power. But the move, which left the ruling party in charge of government, did little to resolve the conflict.
The anti-government protesters want an interim, unelected government to implement vaguely defined reforms to fight corruption — and to remove the Shinawatra family's influence from politics. Critics at home and abroad call the idea unconstitutional and undemocratic.
On Monday, Thailand's acting prime minister insisted his government would not resign, resisting pressure from a group of senators calling for a new interim government with full power to conduct political reforms.
Competing protests in Bangkok have raised concerns of more violence. An overnight attack last week on an anti-government protest site left 3 dead and more than 20 injured.
'De facto coup'
Brad Adams, Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, denounced the army move, calling it "a de facto coup."
"The military has pulled a 100-year-old law off the shelf that makes the civilian administration subordinate to the military, effectively rendering the executive, legislative and judicial branches powerless," Adams said. "The broad powers conferred on the military mean that there are no legal safeguards against rights violations."
U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said the U.S. expected the army "to honour its commitment to make this a temporary action to prevent violence, and to not undermine democratic institutions."
The army issued edicts throughout the day. In one, they asked TV and radio stations to interrupt programming for army broadcasts. In another, they ordered police "to stop gatherings or activities that oppose" a new military command centre established to oversee the imposition of martial law.
The military also asked social media sites to suspend services that could incite violence, and ordered journalists not to
disseminate interviews "that could incite wider conflict, distort, cause confusion in the society and lead to violence." Those who do will face prosecution, the army said.
At least 10 politically affiliated private TV stations from both sides ceased broadcasting — after armed soldiers entered and requested they do so.
Prayuth said rival protesters could remain at their rally sites as long as they remain peaceful and stop marching. The leader of anti-government demonstrators, Suthep Thaugsuban, handed a bouquet of flowers to army officers taking care of the Government House complex as his supporters vacated a building they had occupied for a week.
'We will see what the army wants'
The leader of the pro-government Red Shirt movement, Jatuporn Prompan, said his group could accept martial law, but wouldn't tolerate a coup.
"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 more than 100 soldiers deployed near the rally venue, where the set up checkpoints on roads.
Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok-based think-tank , said that although the martial law did not amount to a coup, "it is clearly a military intervention" — one that leaves the nation's fate in Prayuth's hands.
The group said several scenarios could unfold. Prayuth could consult the caretaker government and other leaders to talk and set a date for new elections, which the protesters have so far vowed to obstruct unless political reforms are instituted first. Demonstrators derailed the last vote in February and the constitutional Court annulled the results.
The analyst group said Prayuth could allow the Senate to name a new premier and Cabinet, something the Red Shirts would oppose, perhaps violently.
"Martial law is just a short-term intervention. Thailand needs to find a solution for the political vacuum," the group said. "Now the duty to decide belongs to only Gen. Prayuth himself."