Thailand’s army has declared martial law, intensifying the turbulent nation’s deepening political crisis but denying a coup d’etat was under way.
The shock pre-dawn announcement, which effectively places the army in charge of public security nationwide, came after six months of anti-government demonstrations aimed at ousting the government and a day after the south-east Asian country’s caretaker prime minister refused to step down.
The army said in a statement that the military had taken the action to “keep peace and order” and soldiers entered several private television stations in the capital Bangkok to broadcast their message.
Although troops were deployed at some junctions, the vast metropolis of 10 million people appeared calm and commuters could be seen driving and walking to work as usual.
An army official said: “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.”
A ticker on Channel 5, an army station, also denied the military was taking over and asked the public not to panic.
Thailand’s army has staged at 11 successful coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.
The military statement was signed by army chief General Prayuth Chan-Ocha. It cited a 1914 law that gives it authority to intervene during times of crisis and said it had taken the action because continuing mass rallies between political rivals “could impact the country’s security and safety of the lives and properties of the public”.
Yesterday Thailand’s acting prime minister insisted his government would not resign, resisting pressure from a group of senators seeking ways to settle the country’s political crisis and from anti-government protesters demanding an appointed prime minister.
The deadlock in south-east Asia’s second-largest economy has been worsening since former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved the lower house in December and a court ousted her and nine cabinet ministers earlier this month for abuse of power.
A group of about 70 senators, most of whom are seen as siding with the anti-government protesters, proposed a framework on Friday that calls for a government with full power to conduct political reforms.
Acting prime minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan and justice minister Chaikasem Nitisiri met two representatives of the senate in an undisclosed location yesterday to avoid disruption from the protesters.
In a statement following the meeting, Mr Niwattumrong said the cabinet could not resign because “it will be negligence of duty and against the constitution” and insisted he “can carry out duties and has full authority” as prime minister.
The cabinet has operated in a caretaker capacity with limited power since Ms Yingluck dissolved the lower house in December in a failed bid to ease the political crisis. A new government cannot normally be named until there are elections, which anti-government demonstrators have vowed to block unless political reforms occur first.
The senate, the only functioning legislative body in the country, was seen as the last resort of the anti-government protesters, who are calling for an interim, unelected prime minister to be chosen.
Earlier this month, the Constitutional Court removed Ms Yingluck for nepotism along with nine cabinet members in a case that many viewed as politically motivated. Protesters said her removal was not enough because she was replaced by an acting prime minister from the ruling party.
Anti-government protesters say they are making their final push to oust the government and install an unelected prime minister and government. They have promised to call off their rallies if they are not successful by May 26, following six months of street demonstrations in which 28 people have died and hundreds of others injured.
The protesters began searching for members of the cabinet at their residences yesterday to pressure them to resign, but did not find any.
Unions representing about 20 state-owned enterprises vowed to go on strike on Thursday to support the anti-government protesters, although several companies, including Thai Airways and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, said they would operate normally.
Thailand’s political crisis began in 2006 when Ms Yingluck’s brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was toppled by a military coup after being accused of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Former Manchester City FC boss Mr Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire, remains highly popular among the poor in the north and north east, and parties controlled by him have won every national election since 2001.
The anti-government protesters, who are aligned with the opposition Democrat Party and backed by the country’s traditional elites, say they want to remove all traces of his political machine from politics.
Mr Thaksin’s supporters, known as the Red Shirts, have staged a rally in Bangkok’s western outskirts since May 10, raising concerns about possible clashes between them and the anti-government protesters.
Justice minister Chaikasem Nitisiri said the army had not consulted the cabinet, but he played down the move, saying it was “only taking over security” and it would not affect the cabinet.
The leader of the Red Shirt movement, Jatuporn Prompan, said his group could accept the imposition of martial law, but “won’t tolerate a coup or other non-constitutional means” to grab power.
“We will see what the army wants,” he said, warning that the undemocratic removal of the country’s caretaker government “will never solve the country’s crisis and will plunge Thailand deeper into trouble”.
Red Shirts had been massing for days on the outskirts of Bangkok, and Mr Jutaporn said his supporters were being “surrounded”. More than 100 soldiers deployed near the rally venue with coils of barbed wire to block roads; and appeared to be taking over control of the area from police.