ASIA HAND Thailand put under martial law
By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK - Thailand's powerful military today imposed martial law across the country in a pre-emptive move to prevent violent clashes between opposed political protest groups in Bangkok. While army commander-in-chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha insisted the intervention was not a coup, his newly created Peace-Keeping Command Center's (PKCC) early martial measures augur ill for the country's already battered and bruised democracy.
Prayuth's pre-dawn move came after caretaker Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan and a group of senators failed on Monday to reach agreement on the creation of a new interim
government tasked with implementing political reforms ahead of new elections. While senators pushed for the caretaker administration's voluntary resignation, a move that by some legal readings would allow for a royally endorsed appointed government, Niwattumrong argued that he could face dereliction of duty charges if he stepped down. Instead, his caretaker government is now legally subordinated under Prayuth's military command.
It's unclear if Prayuth will provide the muscle for the Senate to knock the elected caretaker government from power, or instead allow its hand-tied ministers to remain in place to deflect criticism that his invocation of martial law represents a de facto coup. The Senate's call for an appointed administration echoes demands made by the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protest group, now encamped in and around Government House and the army's main headquarters.
The PDRC, led by former opposition Democrat party members and supported by a royalist establishment with power bases in the bureaucracy, judiciary and monarchy, first mobilized against an amnesty bill that Thaksin's political allies passed in parliament that would have allowed for his return from exile absolved of his criminal corruption conviction. It was instrumental through months of street agitation in turning the political tide against Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister and perceived proxy of the self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Thailand's Constitutional Court on May 7 dismissed Yingluck from office as caretaker prime minister for "illegally" transferring a top security official to pave the way for the promotion of Thaksin's former brother-in-law to national police chief.
The long anticipated court verdict against Yingluck allowed Cabinet ministers not involved in the rotation decision to maintain their caretaker status, a ruling some analysts viewed as a compromise aimed at avoiding a potential backlash from the pro-Thaksin United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) and in response to royal signals that the monarch was not willing to appoint a new government, as allowed for by the Constitution's Article 7 in the case of a political vacuum.
Gathered on Bangkok's outskirts and critical of the military's political role, UDD leaders today renewed their persistent call for new elections as the only viable solution to the country's grinding political impasse. That call, favored by Thaksin's Peua Thai party and Western countries including the United States, is unlikely to be answered anytime soon. In February, PDRC protestors disrupted several polling stations in an general election that was eventually ruled null and void by the Election Commission. The same body has raised its doubts about the viability of the caretaker government's proposal to hold new polls in mid-July for the same reason.
That raises hard initial questions about the potential duration of Prayuth's new martial order. Throughout the PDRC's six months of protests and the UDD's more recent counter-mobilization, Prayuth has endeavored to portray the military as an above the fray mediator rather than behind the scenes participant to the conflict. Top US State and Defense Department officials, speaking at a Thailand-related conference last week in Washington, endorsed that narrative by praising the military's "restraint" and "professionalism" in handling the crisis.
On-the-ground, however, off-duty soldiers in plainclothes have taken political sides by supporting and protecting the PDRC, an undercover deployment that has grown in size as pro-Thaksin assailants beginning in January launched a series of assault rifle and grenade attacks against PDRC protest sites, according to a military insider familiar with the situation. Local media reported that a large cache of military-grade weapons was exposed and left behind after the PDRC recently uprooted its Lumpini Park protest site in Bangkok and decamped to its current base around Government House.
Escalating shadowy street violence and the threat of PDRC versus UDD clashes in the streets of Bangkok apparently forced Prayuth's hand. After insisting for months that a coup would not resolve entrenched political problems, Prayuth vowed to use "full force" to prevent future political violence in the wake of a particularly bloody grenade attack that killed three and injured over a score PDRC protestors last Thursday at Bangkok's iconic Democracy Monument. Prayuth said then if the violence persisted the army may need to "resolve the situation."
Before today's invocation of martial law, some analysts feared a worst case scenario of PDRC and UDD supporters armed with military grade weapons clashing in running street battles across the national capital. That scenario foresaw low-ranking soldiers in plain clothes fomenting the conflict while top-brass leaders claimed neutrality and refused to intervene until the death and destruction reached a level high enough that Western governments would agree to the military's restoration of order without triggering coup-related sanctions.
The question now is whether Prayuth will extend the martial law provisions applied today to censor perceived partisan media and restrict freedom of assembly, including the right to protest peacefully. One of Prayuth's first martial law orders, similar in tone and language to the ones released in the wake of the 2006 military coup that ousted Thaksin, was for both protest groups to remain at their current rally sites. In apparent enforcement of that command, troops today encircled the UDD's camp on Utthayan Road on the outskirts of Bangkok. It's not immediately clear whether the military will try to force either or both groups to dismantle their protests in the name of national security.
A seemingly neutral call for both groups to disperse would at this political point hurt Thaksin more than the political forces aligned with the PDRC. Indeed, if PDRC leaders were tipped by the military that an appointed government was in the offing, they could potentially shut down their protest voluntarily on the grounds that their anti-Thaksin demands had been met.
A suppressive scenario would weaken, though not eliminate, Thaksin's ability to respond with violence to the dissolution of his aligned caretaker government and the establishment of a military-backed appointed administration bent on purging his and his family's influence from politics. Prayuth's decision to invoke martial law across the entire country, rather than just Bangkok, suggests that he is preparing for possible provincial unrest in Thaksin's northern and northeastern region strongholds.
Radical UDD leaders had threatened civil war if Yingluck was knocked from power undemocratically and a pro-establishment appointed administration installed in her place. While many security analysts view such threats as overwrought, particularly in light of the UDD's often limp mobilizations, some foresee insurgency scenarios, similar perhaps to the anonymous hit-and-run style attacks launched by Muslim insurgents on a near daily basis against security and government officials in southern Thailand.
The same analysts interpret the shadowy assaults on the PDRC - some of which have been publicly presaged by Chalerm Yoobamrung, outgoing chief of the now dissolved Center for the Administration of Peace and Order (CAPO) created by Yingluck to counter the PDRC - as veiled warnings of a possible insurgent response to Yingluck's and now Niwattumrong's extra-constitutional ouster. Certain security analysts speculate that the military has attempted to pre-empt that threat by identifying and targeting known UDD hardliners; others interpreted last month's assassination of pro-UDD poet Mai Neung as a message that any UDD violence will beget similar violence.
The more hopeful, if less likely, scenario is that Prayuth's new martial order will be short-lived and encourage competing political camps that have so far refused to compromise to reach a new power-sharing accommodation that restores stability, ends violence and ultimately strengthens democracy through reform. In a social media message, Thaksin wrote that marital law was "expected" and that he did not anticipate it would cause "further ruining [of] democratic principles." Foreign mediators who met Thaksin in Singapore after Yingluck's ouster but before the invocation of martial law indicate his tone was more "professional" than "vengeful."
With his caretaker government now powerless under martial law and his strategic options narrowed further under de facto military rule, Thaksin may now reconsider earlier offers he refused of a minority voice over appointments and reforms in an interim appointed government. In the run-up to Yingluck's court ordered ouster, and in tune with one of the PDRC's main demands, Thaksin was quoted in local media saying that he and his family members might be willing to withdraw from politics for one year. Now with Prayuth in charge, it's not clear that previous power-sharing proposals are still on the negotiating table.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor.
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