by Marque A. Rome
Evidently the other foot has fallen: Thailand’s military chief Gen. Prayuth Janocha declared martial law early this morning at 3.30 AM when much of the nation was asleep and people out and about were mostly unconcerned with politics or too drunk to care.
This does not come as a great surprise: last week the general’s official spokesman told Daily News, a mass circulation Thai language newspaper, that the general felt circumstances had grown worrisome and would declare martial law if he thought it the only way to keep events from entering a maelstrom.
As I write this, reports indicate police in Bangkok have been told the army would be responsible for security and to await orders. Soldiers over the last three months have reportedly erected some 178 bunkers around the sprawling city of 15 million (in Thailand, officially a province not merely a city). Traffic Chief Pol. Maj. Gen. Jirasant Kaewsaeng-ake said his office was “presently co-operating.”
Private TV channels, including that operated by the pro-government Red Shirts (UDD) and the Democrat Party’s anti-government Blue Sky TV, have been temporarily closed. A company of Guards from the 19th Regiment invested the premises of Thaicom, founded by Thaksin Shinawatra, which operates three satellites. Although Thaksin sold the company to Singapore sovereign fund Temasek in 2006, anti-government protesters believe the former prime minister is secretly still in control.
The big broadcast channels licensed by various arms of the government, including the army, are still on, but their programmes controlled. The army has issued a number of orders since taking over this morning, among which are that politically divisive expression is not allowed.
I did find what claims to be a live broadcast from the Red Shirt encampment at <www.asiaupdate.tv/live> on the Net. Nothing controversial has been said from the stage. The programme has so far been mostly live music — albeit nationalistic songs with a decidedly Red-Shirt bent: for example ‘Yingluck Must Fight’, about Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, forced from office by the Constitutional Court on 7th May. Although the army has commanded demonstrators stay put, the Red Shirt event did not appear to have thick attendance.
The stage backdrop features a slogan in English reading, “Fight for Democracy”. In Thai, however, is written “Suppress the Rebels!”, which evidently refers to the opposition People’s Democratic Reform Committee led by Suthep Thaugsuban.
Soldiers have organised inspection points around the city, which initially snarled traffic, but a report moments ago on Thai TV 3 showed that they have eased up on inspections and traffic appears to be moving normally now. At a news conference earlier this morning carried on the same station, Red Shirt chief Jatuporn Prompan said his group had no intention of interfering or opposing the army’s actions. He also said, in a report carried on the Daily News Website, that the Red Shirt encampment on Aksa Rd. had been “surrounded” by the army.
Jatuporn has hitherto proclaimed repeatedly that his group is willing to devote their “blood and sweat” to ensuring democracy in Thailand is not toppled. He also contends that moves to remove the present government (in caretaker status since December) result from a conspiracy of the old establishment against the policies, parties and governments associated with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was driven from office in a coup on 19 September, 2006, and is currently a fugitive, living abroad mostly in Dubai.
He is seen, however, as the real power behind the current Peua Thai Party government. Moves last year to cancel his conviction for abuse of power in a land deal, to return him to Thailand and restore the 46 billion baht seized by court order from his estate, prompted the campaign to topple his sister’s government beginning in October.
Army chief Prayuth said, after proclaiming martial law nation wide, that the order does not constitute a coup of state. However, seizing control of broadcast communications media and setting up road blocks reflect a strategy used in previous coups. The current acting prime minister, Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan, said he was not informed by the army in advance of the martial law decree. Daily News reports that he called an urgent meeting with cabinet ministers in a “secret safe house” to “evaluate the situation” and would call a news conference “later”.
The army announced also that a meeting of senior and regional commanders would be held today at 2.00 PM, and also called senior ministry and department civil servants”, including provincial governors, “to report in” at meetings scheduled for today. Members of the press were invited to a meeting at the Army Club on Vipawadi Rangsit Rd in Bangkok to hear details of martial law implementation.
At least two senior commanders, including Supreme Commander Gen. Thanasak ‘Big Jiab’ Pratimaprakorn, who yesterday went to Pakistan, will not attend. Thanasak, who is married to a member of the old establishment Bunnag clan, was earlier this year rumoured to be Suthep’s choice for a “neutral” prime minister.
Defence Ministry permanent secretary Gen. Nipat Tonglek also left yesterday, for a meeting of ASEAN defence ministers in Burma. He is due to return at 11.00 PM tonight. Nipat has been described in the press as former Prime Minister Yingluck’s chief ally in the military. He was also a member of CAPO (the centre to administer peace and order set up in January to administer the emergency decree issued then by the government). As part of today’s martial law decree, the army ordered CAPO disbanded.
Nothing divisive or incendiary is allowed printed, distributed or broadcast until martial law is repealed, an army announcement said. The law was invoked under articles 6 and 11 of the Martial Law Act of 2457 — a law enacted 100 years ago.
Article 6 of the Act affords “soldiers power superior to civil authorities” in administration of areas where the law is invoked. Article 11 details the activities forbidden during martial law. It is divided into eight sections forbidding unauthorised meetings, printed or broadcast materials and access to areas declared off limits, and allowing soldiers to order citizens to stay in situ, in their homes, and to declare a curfew. It also allows the defence minister to declare activities forbidden as he sees fit.
Article 4 of the act, however, states that martial law can be invoked by any commander down to the regimental level in the event of riots or warfare, and specifies no other case.
The latter point may lead to heated surmise regarding present circumstances, which, though indubitably a political crisis, and despite occasional clashes, shootings, and explosions, have not been reported as rioting or warfare.
Another point that may be germane regards who now is minister of Defence: according to the Ministry of Defence Website, Yingluck is still prime minister and defence minister, and Air Chief Marshal Sukampol Suwannathat is also defence minister. Sukampol, however, was removed from his position by Yingluck on 30th June, 2013, in response to a suit brought against him by former Democrat prime minister Abisit Vejjajiva. In so far as Gen Nipat is attending the Defence Ministers meeting in Burma, it may be assumed that for present purposes he is defence minister — and he has certainly not been seen as a friend to the protest movement.
Many have waited, over the last six months, for the army to do something. Suthep and the PDRC openly demanded military intervention to protect democracy. On the opposite side, Thaksin has obviously tried to force Prayuth’s hand. The general, however, avoided intervention. When the State Enterprise Workers’ Relations Confederation, with members from some 20 state-operated companies, said they would strike beginning Thursday to support Suthep, and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand union’s president also said his people would join the protests this week (though not strike) the “vacuum” that so many from every part of the political spectrum have been anticipating appeared at hand.
Whether that is what prompted the general to declare martial law can only be surmised. But its declaration undoubtedly must make many feel it is time to choose sides. Hitherto all sides have said they want ‘democracy’, though completely at odds about what that means. I expect that in the minds of Jatuporn, Thaksin and Suthep, this is the defining moment: henceforth, no room is left for fence-sitters.
Gen. Prayuth obviously hopes his move will end the gridlock and allow people to get back to their business. But is it the end? Or is it only the beginning….?