Only in Thailand: Coup Without a Coup

The Royal Thai Army declares martial law across the crisis-gripped kingdom and tells the nation not to panic as the announcement is meant to restore order. Photo by Vinai Dithajohn, Copyright @Demotix (5/20/2014)

The Royal Thai Army declares martial law across the crisis-gripped kingdom and tells the nation not to panic as the announcement is meant to restore order. Photo by Vinai Dithajohn, Copyright @Demotix (5/20/2014)

The Royal Thai Army has imposed martial law in Thailand in a bid to end violence and the political conflict which has gripped the nation since last year. But army officials are insisting that their intervention is not a coup. Further, they are inviting leaders of warring political forces to talk and resolve the political crisis.

There have been 18 coups in Thailand and the last one in 2006 ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Martial law was declared a few weeks after Thaksin’s younger sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, was removed from office by the Constitutional Court.

The opposition, which has been organizing provocative street protests since November, has accused Thaksin’s family of being guilty of corruption and abuse of power. Believing that the electoral process is tainted by Thaksin’s influence, the opposition is demanding the appointment of an unelected People’s Council to implement political reforms. On the other hand, Thaksin’s party supports the holding of a new election either in July or August to end the political impasse.

Invoking threats to national security, and to prevent more bloodshed, the military decided to intervene by declaring martial law.

Keep Calm. This is not a coup.

The army assured the public that government operations will remain normal. It asserted that the Constitution and the civilian government are still functioning. What it installed is the Peace and Order Maintaining Command whose primary task is to ensure the security of Thai citizens and the state.

Foreign analysts have described the military action as a half-coup and a soft-coup. But is it really not a coup? Isriya Paireepairit is certain that it is military intervention:

The army insisted that it is not the coup d’etat and the current acting government remains in place.

In practice, while it is not an ‘official coup’, it is clearly a ‘military intervention’. The acting Pheu Thai government is still in force but their power on security matters is now transferred to the army. Some might say it is ‘phantom coup’ or ‘disguised coup’.

For a group of university scholars called Nitirat or Enlightened Jurists, the martial law declaration is unnecessary since the government can use emergency measures without the need of giving broad powers to the military:

When the facts of what has occurred are examined, the political demonstrations in Bangkok and the surrounding areas do not extend to the entire country. The promulgation of martial law for the entire country is therefore in excess of necessity and incompatible with principles of reason and proportion that demand that the limitation of rights and liberties must be carried out only as necessary.

The Asian Human Rights Commission reminded the Thai army that there is no such thing as normal under a martial law regime:

The Asian Human Rights Commission disagrees strongly with the idea that martial law can or should be normalized…There is nothing normal about martial law, nor the conditions of political and legal life that it creates.

While acknowledging that the solutions offered by major political parties to end the crisis are not effective, Atiya Achakulwisut does not believe that martial law will work:

Despite it being a convenient short-term solution, intervention by the army will never sort out the political conflicts entangling us. Indeed, as shown by the last coup, an armed interpolation might settle strife for a short time, but end up generating the sort of deeper and more divisive feelings of disenfranchisement that have spread and taken root.

We are here, stuck at this juncture where different groups of people want to go into opposite directions, because of that short-sighted military way out. There is no reason to repeat the same mistake.

Media Censorship

Thailand’s martial law, which dates back since 1914, gives the military the power to control the press. And this was what the army did today when it ordered 14 TV stations and local radio stations to either shut down or broadcast army statements. The army said it is asking for “cooperations” not to air political matters

in order that people have correct information without bias which may cause misunderstandings, which may amplify the conflict, and affected the peacekeeping duty of the officials.

Khaosod English criticized the army’s takeover of several newsrooms:

The military has insisted that this is not a coup. But coup or no coup, the martial law is already restricting a number of rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Thai constitution.

Thailand’s martial law explicitly says that it may only be declared by the military in a time of war or insurrection. Neither is happening in Thailand at the moment.

Thai media deserves the right to operate without censorship or intimidation. The martial law is only worsening the already fragile state of media freedom in Thailand.

Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk, described the army’s action as illegal:

The military intervention in the TV stations has been carried out in a completely illegal manner…If the army wants the media to provide the public with information, it just has to send them its statements. It does not need to take over newsrooms.

Richard Bennett, Amnesty International’s Asia Director, urged the army to respect the independence of media:

The military’s moves to impose tight restrictions on independent media are deeply worrying. National security must not be used as a pretext to silence the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression, and we urge the military to give media in Thailand the space to carry out their legitimate work.

Even social media is threatened:

Anti-Martial law protest

Protests were organized urging the army to return to the barracks and to revoke the martial law declaration. Meanwhile, the opposition-backed protesters have vowed to hold bigger rallies in the next few days to force the removal of the civilian government.

Coup in the time of social media

A Bangkok resident poses for a photograph with Thai soldiers. Photo by Vinai Dithajohn, Copyright @Demotix (5/20/2014)

A Bangkok resident poses for a photograph with Thai soldiers. Photo by Vinai Dithajohn, Copyright @Demotix (5/20/2014)

Curiously, many Thai citizens snapped selfie photos with soldiers deployed in Bangkok, the country’s capital. Coconuts Bangkok made this observation:

Bangkok woke up to horrific traffic as armed troops were stationed on many main roads across the city.

Along the BTS (train) lines, Coconuts counted many army officials standing guard under platforms with humvees parked nearby. To be fair, they weren't very threatening and many Bangkokians approached them to take obligatory selfies.


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