What “martial law” in Thailand really means—censorship, selfies, and uncertainty

A martial photo opportunity.
A martial photo opportunity.
Image: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit
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BANGKOK—The political discord that has shaken Thailand for months entered an uncertain new phase at dawn today, as the country’s military declared martial law (paywall), granting itself broad powers to “suppress unrest” and take control of the country’s public security.

What does martial law look like?

There hasn’t been any violence in the streets, and life in Bangkok is proceeding normally for most people. The military has deployed armed soldiers at key intersections, shopping malls, protest sites, and TV stations, but the mood is calm, with bystanders taking pictures at the barricades.

Martial law selfies!
Martial law selfies!
Image: AP Photo/Kiko Rosario

The armed forces have claimed the authority to enforce curfews, take up arms against rioters, censor information, prohibit public gatherings, and arrest and detain people for up to seven days, among other powers.

The military has flexed its muscles so far by encircling a group of supporters of the populist government (known as red shirts) on the outskirts of Bangkok, evicting a group of anti-government protesters who had been occupying government offices, and shutting down about a dozen ideologically-based satellite TV channels and community radio stations on both sides.

Here’s the full list of martial powers, which can only be rescinded by a royal decree from King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-serving monarch.

Coup? What coup?

The army insisted that its actions did not constitute a coup d’état. “This is definitely not a coup. This is only to provide safety to the people and the people can still carry on their lives as normal,” one military official told the AP.

Yet the caretaker government of acting Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan—aligned with the rural faction based in northern Thailand that is at odds with much of the country’s establishment elite—said it had no forewarning of the army’s action. One government aide called it “half a coup d’état,” adding: “We have to watch and see if the army chief honors his declaration of impartiality.”

Who’s in charge?

General Prayuth Chan-ocha chief of the Royal Thai Army.
General Prayuth Chan-ocha chief of the Royal Thai Army.
Image: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

That would be Royal Thai Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha. In a televised speech early on Tuesday morning, he told Thais that the army “intends to bring peace to the beloved country of all Thais as soon as possible.”

Supporters of the populist government have reason to question Prayuth’s claim of impartiality. He has a reputation as a fierce opponent of Thaksin Shinawatra—the exiled former prime minister and leader of the red shirts—and was “the leading proponent of using force” against them during bloody protests in 2010. Prayuth is due to retire later this year.

Did anyone see this coming?

Military interventions are relatively commonplace in Thailand. The armed forces have attempted 18 coups since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932—an average of one every four and a half years.

Until now, Thailand’s military has tried to stay on the sidelines during the unrest of the last few months, which saw large anti-government protests paralyze Bangkok and the ouster of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister. But intervention by the armed forces was always a distinct possibility, especially with an escalating body count due to violence at protest sites.

In January, asked about rumors of an imminent coup, Prayath said—in either a veiled warning or slip of the tongue—“people are scared of something that hasn’t taken place yet.”

How will Thailand’s opposing factions respond?

Calmly, thus far. The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, as the red shirts are officially known, said on Twitter that its members would wait and see whether the army tried to replace the caretaker government before deciding how to respond.

Despite the red-shirt gathering on the outskirts of Bangkok being encircled by the army, people are allowed to come and go as they please.

Thaksin, in his first tweet in months, said martial law was expected, but he hoped it would not “lead to the repression of human rights and undermining of democracy, since it might worsen Thailand’s image in the eyes of the world,” according to a translation by Asian Correspondent.

Meanwhile, the military evicted demonstrators from the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, the main anti-government protest group, from the government buildings they have been occupying on-and-off for the last few months. PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban said his group would cancel a march planned for today but will maintain its protest site in Bangkok.

What will happen next?

The big question is whether the army will allow elections scheduled for July 20 to proceed, which would almost certainly result in another victory for the pro-Thaksinites, or will back the appointment of an unelected prime minister who is more acceptable to the Thai establishment. Given Prayath’s background, the former course is hard to imagine, and the latter would create a volatile stand-off with the red shirts.

“We think the main reason for the declaration of martial law is to ensure the situation remains under control when the Senate appoints a new PM,” Nomura analyst Nithi Wanikpun wrote in a note to clients.

What will this do to the Thai economy?

Thailand has weathered many political upheavals and natural disasters, earning it the sobriquet “Teflon Thailand,” but as Quartz has reported, the nonstick surface is showing some heavy scratches: GDP fell 0.6% in the first quarter as consumer confidence and foreign investment plummeted. It’s unclear whether the declaration of martial law will exacerbate those fears, or create a stable starting point for the country to move forward.

“The imposition of martial law is not, in itself, negative for Thailand’s ratings, although clearly we are keeping the situation under close review,” said Fitch Ratings analyst Andrew Colquhoun in a note to clients. “It may even help to break Thailand out of the political deadlock of the past six months, by which the two sides have failed to agree on arrangements for new elections.”

The country’s tourism industry will likely take an additional hit from martial law declaration—the carefree image of Thailand’s sunny beaches tends to clash with soldiers with automatic weaponry—though the impact may be muted because it is currently the low season for tourists.

The United States and other western governments issued advisories to their citizens, urging them to avoid large public gatherings and protest sites. A US state department spokeswoman said: “We expect the army to honor its commitment to make this a temporary action to prevent violence, and to not undermine democratic institutions.”