Despite Thailand’s declaration of martial law in what the army said was an effort to end political unrest, most Thais were going about life as normal.
In many ways, it’s business as usual for the country of 67 million, where the military has been in power at least as often as the elected politicians. The familiarity of the event led to some interesting scenes, with people taking selfies with soldiers on the streets of Bangkok on Tuesday.
Most of the population remembers the 2006 coup d’état that drove out Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and many recall multiple times that the army moved out of the barracks and on to the streets. In all, there have been 11 successful coups since 1932 and another handful that failed.
This time, though, Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha insists what’s happening is not a coup, but just a way to restore “peace and order for people from all sides.” He said martial law would continue until “the country is safe and there is stability.” One government aide called the army’s move “half a coup d’etat.”
Time, however, writes that “despite military denials, the imposition of martial law across Thailand has been criticized by government supporters as yet another putsch.”
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, is quoted by Time as saying, “I think you can call this a coup … because this is about taking away power from the people, taking control of the political situation and human rights.”
For many people who sympathize with the opposition yellow-shirt movement, martial law represents a victory of sorts. For six months, many campaigned for the ouster of Thaksin’s sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and the leadership of the yellow-shirt movement strongly hinted that the military should topple her.
Although the country’s Constitutional Court dismissed Yingluck and nine of her cabinet ministers earlier this month, the rump of her Pheu Thai party government remained in power.
On the other hand, Yingluck’s supporters — many of whom come from the country’s poor and rural northeast — seem to be taking the army at its word. There’s another dynamic: many of the enlisted soldiers stationed on the street also hail from the northeast.
Following the army’s move, Thailand’s acting Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan called for new elections, originally set for July, to take place instead on August 3. He issued a statement saying: “The government wishes the same for national peace and hopes that the martial law is imposed by way of peaceful means and equality with no violence.”
“This action of the Royal Thai Army must be under the principles of constitution and democracy with the king as head of state,” he said.
Niwatthamrong later said he was “talking to the army chief’s side and there are many pressing issues we need to discuss, including elections and reform.”