20 May 2014
In the early hours of this morning, the Thai military declared martial law throughout the country. The chief of Thailand’s army, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, said the move was ‘not a coup’ and the aim was ‘to preserve law and order’. Although the army say this is not a coup, the military have historically been the ultimate power-brokers in Thailand.
What does this mean for tourists?
There was an increased army presence in parts of Bangkok this morning, but that decreased as the day went on. As dramatic as today’s news is by normal international standards, there has been little impact so far on Thai residents, expats or tourists. People have been to work today and life continues as normal for the vast majority of people in Thailand. Airports, public transport, shopping malls, tourist attractions and entertainment venues remain open as usual. Away from certain areas of Bangkok, there are no signs that the country is under martial law and there is no reason at this stage to panic or cancel trips to Thailand. Obviously, the situation remains fluid and things could change quickly, but at the moment it’s a case of carry on as you were.
What does martial law mean?
The army have said they don’t intend to use every aspect of martial law, but it does mean the military can replace the police when it comes to overseeing demonstrations and street protests. Restrictions can also be placed on the media and curfews can be imposed. There are currently no curfews in place and life in Bangkok and other areas of Thailand continues as normal. There was a visible army presence in specific areas of Bangkok this morning, but by the end of the day that presence had noticeably decreased or been removed completely. Businesses, shopping malls, schools and entertainment venues all remain open as usual.
Why have the Thai army declared martial law?
The reasons behind the decision are open to debate. Tensions were raised recently following the removal from office of PM Yingluck. Given the current political impasse between pro- and anti-government groups this could be a move that forces both sides to finally try and reach a compromise. That’s certainly the line that the army have been pushing today as they issued assurances that they are politically neutral and are acting to prevent further bloodshed. During the various rallies and street protests in Thailand in recent years, it is clear that both pro- and anti-government sides have armed factions. In the most recent incident last week, two people were killed and twenty-two injured as the anti-government PDRC protest camp at Democracy Monument came under fire from grenades and rifles.
If the army are genuinely trying to ease tensions and pave the way for talks between the opposing factions, their involvement could be viewed as a positive step forward. However, history has also shown that when the Thai army gets involved in politics, things can turn ugly very quickly. If the military action results in an attempt by the Thai Senate or judiciary to remove the current government, the pro-government red shirts will not take it lying down and it could provoke a violent response. The Thai military knows this and it makes their timing today even more intriguing.
Even without martial law, Thai legal restrictions make it impossible to openly discuss all of the issues involved behind the current power struggle and the role of the Thai military in that struggle. As Thailand approaches the end of an era, what happens next remains uncertain.
Does this mean an end to street protests in Bangkok?
It’s possible that the Thai army are taking pre-emptive measures ahead of planned action by pro- and anti-government groups in Bangkok over the next week. There were fears that these opposing protests could result in violence. The army has called on all protesters to go home and although the military have not yet made any attempt to disperse groups of protesters by force, it remains an option. The army may also choose to allow the rallies to continue, but only in designated areas.
The anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) recently left their base at Lumpini Park in Bangkok and re-established protest camps at Government House, Democracy Monument and along Ratchadamnoen Road. In the wake of today’s news, the army ‘reclaimed’ Government House but protesters have not yet vacated all of the camps they’ve set up. This evening the PDRC leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, sounded defiant and insisted he would lead a mass march in the coming days to bring down the caretaker government. It could be argued that Suthep’s intention all along was to force a military coup. Whether he actually gets what he wants remains to be seen. Suthep has made plenty of outlandish statements and claims of ‘final victory’ marches over the past months, but the fact that he remains at liberty says much about the power play going on behind the scenes and the backing from higher up that he has been able to rely on up to this point. What does or doesn’t happen to Suthep may ultimately reveal who has the upper hand in the power struggle playing out behind the scenes.
Meanwhile, on the western outskirts of Bangkok the pro-government red shirts have yet to disperse their rally. At the moment, their leaders appear to be taking a measured view. The red shirts seem to be adopting a wait and see policy although they have issued statements today reiterating that they will not tolerate a coup by the military or judiciary. Elections were scheduled for July and the caretaker government and the red shirts insist elections must still take place at some stage, although they acknowledge the polls may now have to wait until August. The caretaker government led by acting PM Niwatthamrong said the government ‘hopes that the martial law is imposed by way of peaceful means and equality with no violence.’