Yingluck Shinawatra

Business as usual in Bangkok, despite declaration of martial law

Thai capital's residents, long used to political instability and the sight of soldiers on the city's streets, take martial law in their stride

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2014, 10:36pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 May, 2014, 4:21am

Some snatched selfies with armed soldiers but most passers-by barely blinked as troops and jeeps mounted with machine-guns took to Bangkok's streets early yesterday, a peculiarly pragmatic Thai response to political upheaval.

Marches, sandbagged bunkers and sporadic violence have become commonplace in a struggle lasting almost seven months to overthrow the government, leaving the majority of Bangkok residents broadly inured to the turmoil.

Three soldiers wearing flak jackets and carrying machine guns stood by a military jeep at one downtown intersection, politely posing for photographs with commuters as news spread of the military's declaration of martial law.

A smattering of bemused tourists peered at the troops at the Ratchaprasong junction, a major shopping district which includes high-end hotels.

It is also a highly symbolic site after a military crackdown on a "red-shirt" protest in 2010 left scores dead there.

The army has staged 18 coups or attempted coups since 1932 and is seen by some as a stabilising force within the kingdom's febrile politics.

Groups of armed soldiers were stationed along main roads in the capital. But for most of the city it was business as usual.

While the presence of armed soldiers on the streets raises the stakes for a caretaker government whose authority appears fatally undermined, it did not appear to ruffle many Thais.

Teenager Pongtawat Lanlerdphonboon said martial law was an "issue for adults". "My parents told me to go about my life as normal," the 17-year-old added as he travelled to school.

Several others were unaware of the decree by the afternoon even though it gives authorities sweeping powers - including the right to disperse protest groups, search and detain people, censor the media and enforce a curfew.

"Martial law is intended to impose peace and order, but the key will be the army treatment of the two sides," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

"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."

Bangkok has for several weeks seen unarmed troops stationed in dozens of sandbagged bunkers across the capital.

And protesters at different times have occupied major traffic junctions, a central park and the government headquarters.

Their rallies have also been targeted by gun and grenade attacks that have left 28 dead and hundreds wounded.

Bangkok has seen several rounds of sometimes bloody protests since a bloodless military coup deposed then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006.

His red-shirt supporters, who have massed for a rally for several days in a Bangkok suburb, reported that soldiers had encircled them. But there were no immediate reports of tension.

Instead the day was punctuated by television announcements on all channels by the newly formed Peace and Order Maintaining Command, with army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha as its head.

Several satellite channels were ordered to stop broadcasting - especially the round-the-clock media outlets representing both sides of Thailand's divide.

But with the army denying that its martial law declaration was tantamount to a coup, it was unclear what the hours and days ahead would hold.

"I am not worried but let's wait and see," said Win, a manager for an IT company who gave only one name. "Now there is deadlock. I'm OK with martial law, it is a way to control the two sides. In a few days, the situation will be clearer."

Additional reporting by Associated Press

Thailand martial law: What it means

  • The Martial Law Act 1914 gives the army "superior power" in regard to maintaining public order and security.
  • The army can ban any gathering and prohibit public movement by land, air or water.
  • Military authorities have the power to censor or shut down newspapers and broadcasters.
  • Soldiers can search, requisition, ban, seize, inhabit or destroy "any place". This includes body searches, vehicle, home and building inspections and scrutiny of printed material.
  • The army can enlist people to help the military and can requisition vehicles, food, tools and weapons at any time.
  • The military can impose curfews and prohibit access to certain areas.
  • Authorities can detain anyone suspected of breaching martial law for up to seven days.
  • Civil courts operate, but martial courts can hear trials, even after martial law is revoked.

Agence France-Presse