'Cautious acceptance' of martial law in Thailand sign of dire situation

'Cautious acceptance' of martial law is a sign of how bad things had become, but neither side is likely to relent in pushing its political objectives

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 May, 2014, 10:57pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 May, 2014, 4:00am

The general behind Tuesday's declaration of martial law in Thailand says he hasn't launched a coup. Whether he's proved right will depend on the nation's judges and appointed senators.

Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha sent troops into Bangkok in the middle of the night, shutting down some media outlets and making the military the final arbiter over all aspects of what it deems issues of national security. In a country that has weathered 11 coups since 1932, he didn't suspend the constitution, dissolve the cabinet, impose a curfew or arrest members of the pro-government "red-shirts".

"The cautious acceptance of martial law from red-shirt leaders, caretaker-government ministers and the acting Senate president suggests it's viewed as a circuit breaker, a better option than what was widely seen as escalating violence," said Michael Connors, an associate professor at the Malaysia campus of the University of Nottingham.

"However, each side has warned the military not to go beyond the security mandate of the law, and each will still push for stated political objectives but under tighter control," he said.

We still have rights and freedom …. to fight and hold demonstrations

The declaration of martial law was intended to ease violence that has killed 28 people since November.

Whether that peace is lasting or a pause before possible civil war will depend on actions of the military, courts and senators in coming days. Should the army back plans to install an appointed government, Thailand will face tough questions from the international community and risk an escalation of the unrest that has marred Southeast Asia's second-largest economy for most of the past decade.

Yesterday, the military hosted talks between the warring political rivals. The opposing camps and other top officials met for more than two hours under heavy guard in Bangkok in what one hardline supporter of the elected government called a "good" atmosphere.

There was no breakthrough at the talks chaired by Prayuth. Another meeting was called for today. "Everybody agreed to consider other groups' suggestions to find a joint solution for our country," said army spokeswoman Sirichan Ngathong, adding that 40 people attended.

"It's the first time that they talked to each other in person," she added.

Prayuth brought the two sides together as US-led pressure grew for civilian control to be restored.

The meeting included top officials of the ruling and opposition parties and of the election commission and Senate and the heads of the pro- and anti-government protest camps.

The meeting came as a group of senators pushes forward with a plan to install an interim government, a key demand of royalist anti-government protesters who have been calling for the nation's political rules to be rewritten to remove the influence of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He maintains influence over the government despite being ousted in a 2006 coup.

The nation is currently governed by a caretaker administration in place since December when fresh elections were called by then-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister. She was ousted from her position earlier this month by a court on an abuse of power charge.

The government says letting voters decide is the only democratic solution to the impasse.

"While it remains impossible to say if the reds will turn to widespread violence, the prospect of increasing attacks and retaliatory attacks is very real," said Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

While elections repeatedly yield victories for Thaksin-linked parties - they have won the past five - his royalist opponents deride the legitimacy of the resulting governments, saying they have bought the support of poor rural voters with economically damaging populist policies.

The red-shirts accuse the military, the courts and watchdog agencies of bias, pointing to the 2006 coup as well as the removal of three Thaksin-linked prime ministers since then in court decisions. They say the traditional elite in Bangkok don't respect the votes of long-ignored farmers in the nation's rural heartlands.

Any move to appoint a new government risks a repeat of violence seen in 2010, when a military crackdown on Thaksin supporters calling for fresh elections while a Thaksin-allied party was in opposition killed more than 90 people. The red-shirts are currently rallying on Bangkok's outskirts. "If they overthrow the constitution, we will fight to the end," red-shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan said on Tuesday after Prayuth's announcement.

"If the situation eases, we are ready to stop, but only if it's under democracy," he said.

Thaksin's lawyer, Robert Amsterdam, called the imposition of martial law the "continuation of a slow-motion coup".

"The ultimate end will be a referral to the Senate for an interim government," he said.

The leader of the anti-government protesters, Suthep Thaugsuban, who oversaw the 2010 crackdown when he was a deputy prime minister, said his group's rallies would continue. "Despite the imposition of martial law, the constitution still exists," he told a group of supporters on Tuesday

"So we still have rights and freedom under the constitution to fight and hold demonstrations against this dictatorial government," he said.

Prayuth and other top generals appear to be trying to avoid a full intervention after the military's last foray into politics failed in 2006, when a junta tore up the constitution and took over the country.

"The military did damage to itself by seizing state power by means of a coup in 2006, installing a government that underperformed and seeing to the drafting of a constitution that failed to prevent Thaksinite forces from returning to power in the very next elections," Montesano said. "It seems to be determined to avoid further such damage."

Prayuth now has the ability to push forward the plans of acting leader Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan, who says any reforms without an election are unacceptable, or those of the group of senators seen as sympathetic to the anti- government cause, which was the more likely scenario, said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University.

"They're not going to package it as a coup," said Chambers, editor of the book Knights of the Realm: Thailand's Military and Police, Then and Now. "The martial law act will be repackaged as simply trying to maintain security because six months of chaos has destroyed Thailand."

The senators have said they'll seek the cooperation of parties and the government to find a solution "with full participation of the Thai people". The Senate is the only legislative body still functioning after the lower house was dissolved in December for an election that was declared void by a court.

The key will be whether the palace gives legitimacy to any appointed government, as it did the 2006 coup makers, Chambers said. "Once the king endorses that new interim prime minister, it's curtains for the current prime minister," he said.

"No one is going to fight what the king endorses."

Echoing the divergence in potential political scenarios, analysts are split on the outlook for Thailand's currency. JPMorgan Chase recommends investors stay "tactically overweight" on the baht because the army's move will shorten the duration of the crisis. Morgan Stanley said the currency may plunge to 37 per dollar by the end of the year.

"Whether or not the military comes out or whether we have or don't have martial law, our economy is falling into the abyss," Senator Kamnoon Sidhisamarn told reporters this week.

Beyond politics, the ongoing crisis is partly fuelled by a struggle for influence over the next monarch, with some royalists worried that Thaksin has tried to gain favour with the crown prince, Chambers says.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 86 and ailing.

"A lot of established figures are worried that they're going to lose their economic influence," Chambers said.

"So they don't give a damn what the international community thinks or even if the economy takes a downspin because their personal finances will really take a downspin if Thaksin is close to the next monarch."

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

Six months of political crisis in Thailand

Thailand's army declared martial law on Tuesday to quell unrest across the deeply divided kingdom, which has been shaken by deadly violence since anti-government demonstrations erupted six months ago. Thailand's political crisis has its roots in the 2006 ouster of tycoon-turned-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who went into self-imposed exile to avoid jail for a corruption conviction.

October 31 Protests break out against an amnesty bill critics said was aimed at allowing Thaksin, whose sister Yingluck Shinawatra was then prime minister, to return home.

November 1 The lower house of parliament, dominated by the ruling party, votes for the bill.

November 11 Amid growing outrage on the streets, the upper house rejects it.

November 25 Opposition supporters march on state buildings, occupying several.

November 30 Opposition demonstrators attack a bus carrying government supporters. Several people are killed and dozens wounded.

December 8 Opposition lawmakers resign en masse.

December 9 Yingluck calls early elections. Opposition later announces boycott.

December 22 Protesters stage massive anti-government rally in Bangkok.

December 26 The government rejects a call from the Election Commission to postpone the ballot after violent clashes.

December 27 The army chief refuses to rule out a coup, saying "anything can happen".

December 28 An unknown gunman kills one protester and wounds several others.

January 13 Tens of thousands of protesters occupy streets trying to "shut down" Bangkok.

January 16 Anti-corruption authorities probe possible negligence of duty by Yingluck over a rice subsidy scheme.

January 17 A grenade kills one and wounds dozens at an opposition march, the first of several blasts at the rallies.

January 26 A protest leader is shot dead while giving a speech.

February 2 Demonstrators prevent 10,000 polling stations from opening for the election.

February 11 The Election Commission says re-runs will take place on April 2 where voting was obstructed.

February 14 Thousands of riot police are deployed in Bangkok to reclaim government buildings.

February 19 Court bans use of force against protesters, a day after five are killed in clashes.

March 1 Demonstrators lift blockade of Bangkok.

March 21 Constitutional Court annuls February elections.

April 30 Government announces new elections for July 20.

May 7 Constitutional Court removes Yingluck and several cabinet ministers from office.

May 10 Pro-government protesters warn of "civil war" if an unelected leadership takes over the reins of power.

May 15 The Election Commission says a general election scheduled for July 20 is "no longer possible".

May 20 Army declares martial law, stresses the move "is not a coup" and that there is no need for public panic.