Thailand’s army chief imposed martial law yesterday after months of deadly anti-government protests caused political paralysis, but insisted the intervention did not amount to yet another military coup.
Gun-toting troops fanned out after martial law was declared in a dawn broadcast, as General Prayuth Chau-ocha exploited centuries-old legislation that confers far-reaching powers on the armed forces to act in an emergency.
However, he left the caretaker civilian government in office and later invited the country’s warring political factions to sit down for talks, as the US, Japan and Southeast Asian nations urged Thailand to stay on a democratic track and resolve its differences peacefully.
Soldiers and military vehicles were seen in the heart of the capital’s retail and hotel district. Troops were also positioned at TV stations, where broadcasts were suspended under sweeping censorship orders, although regular Thais appeared largely unfazed.
The dismissal of former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra earlier this month in a court ruling has stoked tensions in the kingdom, which has endured years of political turmoil.
Red Shirt supporters of Yingluck and her brother, former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 coup, have warned of the threat of civil war if power is handed to an unelected leader, as the opposition demands.
Thaksin, who lives abroad to avoid a jail term for corruption, said on Twitter that the imposition of martial law was “expected,” but must not “destroy” democracy.
New York-based Human Rights Watch branded the imposition of martial law a “de facto coup,” voicing alarm at the impact on freedom of expression.
The government officially remained in office and Prayuth presented himself as a mediator.
“We are in the process of inviting both sides to talk but at the minute the situation is still not normal... that’s why I have had to invoke martial law,” he told reporters. “The military will not tolerate any more loss of lives.”
Martial law allows the army to ban public gatherings, restrict people’s movements, conduct searches, impose curfews and detain suspects for up to seven days.
Thailand has been without a fully functioning government since December last year, disrupting government spending, spooking investors and deterring tourists.
The early-hours announcement on military-run television said martial law had been invoked “to restore peace and order for people from all sides” after nearly seven months of protests that have left 28 people dead and hundreds wounded.
“This is not a coup,” it said. “The public do not need to panic, but can still live their lives as normal.”
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