Government allies, international media and even Human Rights Watch are all saying it might be.
After six months of political unrest, the Royal Thai Army announced the enforcement of martial law, effective nationwide from 3AM, May 20th.
It’s been 48 hours since Thai military took control of the Kingdom’s television stations. Identical images of General Prayuth Chan-ocha beamed from TV screens across the country as he announced that martial law had been imposed. During his address bold tickers repeated one message: "The public do not need to panic. Please carry on your daily activities as usual. The imposition of martial law is not a coup d’état.”
But is it? Government allies, international media and even Human Rights Watch are all saying it might be. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged constructive dialogue to end the prolonged political tension as debate rages on.
The sitting Government admitted that they hadn't been informed of the Military’s decision to take power – a sign of a lack of control perhaps. Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitisiri indicated that he and the caretaker PM did not oppose the move, telling the Irish Times, "It’s good that the army is looking after the country’s security. However, the government still has full power to run the country.”
Gen. Prayuth, leader of the newly formed Peace and Order Maintaining Command (POMC) avoided discussions around whether martial law was essentially a Military coup. When asked directly by the Bangkok Post, his response was simply, "Who would answer a question like that?" before reasserting the POMC's peace keeping mandate.
During the first day under martial law the mood throughout the streets of Bangkok was calm and without incident, with many Thais indifferent to the news. It’s been a long six months of political turmoil in the capital with constant uncertainty and no clear endgame. Vendors selling Naam Som (orange juice) and Phuang Malai (jasmine garlands) across from a stationed military tank in the city centre just sighed when asked their thoughts on the development – a lot of Thais feel like they're stuck in the middle of a whole lot of competing egos. Meanwhile, New York Times journalist Thomas Fuller tweeted a quote from a Lieutenant Colonel at the meeting between the major protagonists - “There were laughs, no one was frowning.”
During lunch breaks workers and schoolkids were casually taking selfiesalongside stationed soldiers and military vehicles. The young soldiers were calm and collected under the sweltering temperatures and constant camera attention.
At nightfall a group of about 200 people opposed to martial law lit candles outside of the City’s Cultural Centre.
So if it's not the overthrowing of the government, what exactly is martial law?
Well, here's the section of the Act:
“Within the area under the Martial Law, the military authority shall have superior power over the civil authority in regard to military operation, desistence or suppression, or keeping public order. The civil authority shall act in compliance with the requirements of the military authority.”
In short, civilian government is no longer in charge. Both pro and anti-government protestors cannot march outside of their designated protest sites. Furthermore, martial law can only be repealed by Royal Decree.
All media have been banned from printing anything that could affect "peace and order". At last count eleven television channels have been ordered to cease broadcasting. It's unclear if censorship across social media channels will be imposed, but General Prayuth is today seeking full cooperation from internet service providers to control what he deems, "appropriate content".
The imposition of martial law didn't come as a surprise to many Thais. In the past six months 25 people have been killed and hundreds more injured in political protests. Earlier this month, the Thai Constitutional Court ousted Yingluck Shinawatra as Prime Minister. Nine cabinet ministers were also forced to step down for abuses of power.
This led to concern that Yingluck’s removal will incite retaliation by her supporters. During the Bangkok Shutdown protests in January Independent red-shirt militants told the Bangkok Post that “weapons and ammunition have been hidden in Bangkok and surrounding areas for some months. This is not to hit the protesters but to retaliate against a coup and anyone who forces the public and government agencies to postpone the election.”
Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s billionaire tycoon brother and former PM who was overthrown in the coup of 2006, was unsurprised by the military’s move. He took to Twitter, saying that he expected martial law and he hoped the democratic process was not damaged "more than it has already".
Today, on the third day of martial law, there's concern about the potential of ongoing military rule developing into dictatorship. Journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk, of Thai newspaper The Nation wrote, “Neither democracy nor lasting peace and order can be achieved by coercion. By trying to maintain peace and order indefinitely, Prayuth may have to rely on martial law indefinitely. But by trying to maintain martial law forever, Thailand will end up becoming a dictatorship.”
Meanwhile, Prayuth maintained the goal was a return to normalcy, stating in a televised statement, "We intend to see the situation resolved quickly." He's shown no signs of trying to consolidate his own power and, so far, the streets of Bangkok are pretty peaceful.
What's not yet clear is how all this is going to be resolved.
Words & Images by Courtney D read the entire article up on Vice.