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A prelude to a coup?

Gabriel DominguezMay 20, 2014

Thailand's army has imposed martial law to quell political violence. The military denies it has assumed the reins of power, but the move could also herald an incremental coup, analyst Kim McQuay tells DW.

Thai soldiers use sand bags to fortify their position in the middle of a main intersection in Bangkok's shopping district Photo: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Image: Reuters

On Tuesday, May 20, Thailand's powerful military intervened for the first time in the country's latest political crisis, declaring martial law and dispatching troops into the heart of the capital Bangkok. Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha said the army had stepped in to restore order and build investor confidence, but the move has also raised many questions in a country which has seen 18 actual or attempted military takeovers since 1932.

Thailand has been plunged 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.

In a DW interview Kim McQuay, The Asia Foundation's country representative to Thailand, says he hasn't seen any striking evidence that the caretaker government maintains or is exercising any genuine power. But the expert also says the intervention could potentially lay the groundwork for a military-brokered political compromise leading to fully-contested elections.

DW: The Thai army said the move was "not a coup." Do you share this view in a country which has seen 18 actual or attempted military takeovers since 1932?

Kim Mcquay: It is still very early to judge whether the military leadership is accurately characterizing its declaration of martial law as a measure propelled purely by security considerations, in an effort to maintain public order and defuse the risk of violence; or whether it is the starting point of an incremental coup whose full shape will reveal itself by degree over time.

At this point, Thais are looking for indications as to whether the declaration of martial law was a purely unilateral action on the part of the armed forces, or whether it involved some measure of consultation with the rival political factions. Pheu Thai caretaker government spokespersons have insisted that they were not consulted in advance and that the martial law declaration amounts to "half a coup." In the course of the day, we have not observed the kind of gloating celebration among anti-government PDRC protesters that might signal collusion to their advantage. Going forward, we will look for evidence that the armed forces are treating both sides of the political standoff on even terms.

Kim McQuay
McQuay: 'Martial law and democracy are unlikely partners'Image: Kim McQuay

Why has the military decided to declare martial law just now?

Last week, following several incidents of violence, army chief General Prayuth issued a stern warning to all sides in the protracted conflict, declaring that the military would intervene if violence persisted. PDRC leader Suthep Saugsuban had announced plans for a combination of marches and other protest measures to topple the caretaker government in the coming days, but apart from the apprehension of violence raised as the protests continued without solution, it is not clear why the military leadership chose this particular day to declare martial law.

The Martial Law Act 1914 gives the army "superior power" over civilian institutions in regard to maintaining public order and security. Who is really in charge of the country at the moment?

For practical purposes, the military assumes substantial authority over security-related matters under Thai martial law, including powers of search, seizure, and detention and prohibitions on pubic assembly and media broadcasting. On this first day of marital law, we have received mixed signals as to who is in charge of the country.

The military has set up mobile operations in different parts of the city, including neighborhoods adjacent to Red-Shirt and PDRC protest sites; dissolved the Centre for the Administration of Peace and Order (CAPO) under the caretaker government and replaced it with a military managed security command center; instructed private television stations to broadcast periodic updates from the military command; and summoned permanent secretaries and other senior members of the bureaucracy to a briefing meeting this afternoon.

This combination of actions is consistent with the assumption of significant authority. At the same time, the caretaker government has faintly hinted that it is still in charge, while the Red-Shirt and PDRC protesters have in turn insisted that they are at liberty to assemble and protest, albeit under military orders to remain in their present locations and not stage marches.

Caretaker Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan urged the army to act within the Constitution in an official statement. Does the caretaker government have any real power now?

While we have not observed any striking evidence that the caretaker government maintains or is exercising any significant power, on this first day of martial law it is unlikely that any partisan body - including PDRC and the Red-Shirts - would resist strict military actions and instructions. The early sense is that the caretaker government is following the same course until the extent of the martial law authority assumed by the military leadership becomes clearer and the armed forces begin to hint at their longer-term plans.

How volatile is the situation at the moment?

For the most part, save for the neighborhoods in which military vehicles and personnel were active, today looked like an ordinary day in Bangkok. While neighborhoods of the capital in which Red-Shirt and PDRC supporters have been active in recent weeks were genuinely volatile through yesterday, most areas of Bangkok removed from the protest sites were undisturbed and consequently quite safe.

Ironically, with the declaration of martial law, Bangkok is probably the safest that it has been in weeks, with the rival protest factions registering concern or otherwise commenting, but otherwise taking no steps to resist the armed forces. The risk of a full military takeover of government would presumably be greatest if violence was to erupt in response to martial law.

How are anti-government protesters likely to react to the declaration of martial law?

If the armed forces treat PDRC and the Red-Shirts even-handedly, confining them to their respective encampments, prohibiting them from marching, and leaving the caretaker government in place, the PDRC is unlikely to be overly pleased with the outcome. Protest leader Khun Suthep and his followers have for weeks been calling for a full military intervention to remove the Pheu Thai government, chase the Shinawatra family out of politics, and lay the groundwork for a non-elected People's Council to take the place of electoral democracy. If martial law fails to deliver the PDRC's demands, and results in the even-handed treatment of both political sides, the PDRC leadership is unlikely to be content with the outcome.

Thai anti government red shirt protesters face off with Thai riot police at the entrance to Silom district, in Bangkok, Thailand, early 23 April 2010 (Photo: EPA/BARBARA WALTON)
The Red-Shirts are unlikely to be content with the declaration of martial lawImage: picture-alliance/dpa

How do you see the future of Thailand as a democracy given the latest development?

Martial law and democracy are unlikely partners, yet if security-focused military intervention lays the groundwork for a political compromise leading to fully-contested elections, it could potentially serve the future of democracy in Thailand in a positive way.

If, on the other hand, the declaration is a prelude to a traditional coup of the kind last seen with the removal of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, it would represent a tremendous short-term setback for Thai democracy, with the elites once again riding roughshod over popular electoral mandates. Whatever one thinks of elite influence over and military intervention in politics, neither are strong enough to stem the tide that will eventually carry Thailand forward to a new political settlement.

Kim McQuay is The Asia Foundation's country representative to Thailand.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.