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Thai coup 'unlikely to resolve power struggle'

After failed talks between rival factions, the Thai military has seized control of the government in a coup. Analyst Ernest Bower says the turmoil in Thailand is likely to continue, but doubts a civil war will erupt.

The military takeover comes just two days after army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha declared martial law to quell unrest across the Southeast Asian nation. Thailand has been shaken in a political crisis over the past seven months, pitting the Bangkok-based middle-class and establishment, as well as staunchly royalist south, against the north and northeastern rural support base of the Shinawatra clan.

Themilitary declared a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, suspended the constitution and told outgoing cabinet ministers to report to an army base in the north of the capital by the end of the day. Rival protest camps were ordered to disperse.

Ernest Bower, the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told DW that if the military allows the Thai Senate to appoint a non-elected government, it is likely that supporters for the now ousted Pheu Thai administration will take to the streets in protest.

DW: What political and legal changes are now in place following the coup?

Ernest Bower: The Thai military seems to have stretched the interpretation of a 1914 law permitting the military to intervene to avoid violence. Therefore, the military will seek the appearance of acting within legal means, but in essence, they can do what they want to do and believe they need to do to maintain order.

Senior Adviser & Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic & International Studies - CSIS, Copyright: CSIS.

Bower: 'This struggle is about who will have the power to organize Thailand political structures after the succession of the King'

Two days ago, the army stressed the declaration of martial law wasn't a coup and only aimed at restoring order and stability. Why did Thai Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha decide to stage a coup?

It is clear the military staged the coup after talking with the leader of the caretaker government and anti-government protesters led by Mr. Suthep, the head of the PDRC.

The military was using martial law to show the two political sides they were serious, and when they couldn't force them into a deal, they declared a coup so they could move ahead with new steps to disperse protesters themselves and dictate near-term political order.

Unfortunately, we know from the coup in 2006 that this approach has the real potential to result in violence. In 2010, over 99 people were killed in violent clashes as the military tried to force protestors from the streets of Bangkok.

Gen. Prayuth stated that the country should return to normality. How likely is this to happen given the apparent unwillingness of rival parties to compromise?

Despite Gen. Prayuth's directive, it is unlikely that this coup will resolve the existential struggle for power now going on in Thailand. This struggle is about who will have the power to organize Thailand political structures after the succession of the king. It is hard to see any resolution before that time.

What impact might the coup have on the already struggling Thai economy?

The political dysfunction in Thailand has already had an impact on the country's economy. The Thai baht is hovering near three-year lows, the Stock Exchange of Thailand is also near multiyear lows, foreign investment has stalled and tourism is clearly being impacted. If the coup results in violence, then we can expect a very serious impact including on Bangkok's role as a regional aviation hub and on global supply chains like we saw during the horrific flooding in Thailand two years hence.

Gen. Prayuth also said the takeover would not affect international relations. How likely is this?

Gen. Prayuth is wrong about this. Thailand is a core component of ASEAN and therefore vital to the East Asia Summit. It is the United States oldest treaty ally in Asia and is China's liaison to the ASEAN grouping. A politically unstable Thailand impacts regional balances and ASEAN can only be as strong and focused as its weakest link, which now sadly appears to be Thailand.

What will the priorities of a military-led government be?

One hopes the priority will be restoring order and moving immediately to free and fair elections. If that is not the case, and if the military allows the Thai Senate to appoint a non-elected government, it is likely that the supporters of the now ousted Pheu Thai government will turn to the streets to protest. International friends of Thailand will also need to speak out and urge the country to return to its constitutional processes including elections so the Thai people can vote for their leaders.

Rival protest leaders at the talks were seen being taken away by the army although it was unclear whether they had been formally detained. How high is the risk of a civil war breaking out in the country?

Soldiers block the access to the Army Club where Thailand's army chief held a meeting with all rival factions during a coup in central Bangkok May 22, 2014.

It is incumbent for serious governments to urge Thailand to return to its democratic roots, Bower said

I don't think we are about to see civil war in Thailand. For now at least, the military appears to be unified under Gen. Prayuth. If that changes, the situation could become very dangerous and tend toward real civil conflict.

Given the deep divisions and in a country which has now seen 19 actual or attempted military takeovers since 1932, is it time for the international community to take a stance?

Friends of Thailand need to understand that only Thais can determine their political future. We must be very humble about our capacity to help and influence the actors toward a peaceful resolution. Even though that is the case, I believe it is incumbent for serious governments to urge Thailand to return to its democratic roots and its constitution and hold elections as soon as possible to avoid serious conflict and devolution of freedoms that the Thai people hold so dear.

Ernest Bower is the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez