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    May 21, 2014

    Martial law? Half-a-coup?


    IT WAS 3am in Thailand yesterday. Presumably no one was watching.

    The country's military chief chose that hour to appear on television and declare martial law in the strife-torn kingdom.

    "This is not a coup," said General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, hours before the nation's people woke up to soldiers stationed at intersections and tanks on the streets.

    The army, which has mounted numerous coups in recent decades, insisted "the public do not need to panic but can still live their lives as normal".

    Military officials said they were not interfering with the caretaker government and that caretaker Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan had not been removed.

    But one of his aides said that he was not consulted either. "We have to watch and see if what is declared by the Army Chief is well honoured," he added. He called the events of yesterday morning "a half coup d'etat".

    Human Rights Watch called the army's action a "de facto coup" while a political analyst said it was a "phantom coup".

    Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a specialist on Thai affairs and associate professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said martial law could break the impasse of the past six months.

    "The government is unable to govern and the protesters' goals haven't been realised, so both sides now have to answer to martial law," he told The Guardian.

    Dr Thitinan said the army had placed itself in a precarious position. "It now has to walk a tightrope, not too far in the government's camp, not too far in the protesters' camp. The army had better have a good game plan - the other sides knew what they wanted, but it's not clear if the army does."

    Although life in the capital Bangkok went on much as normal, armed troops patrolled the streets, and rival protest groups were ordered not to move from their camps.

    The army also called on media not to broadcast material that would affect national security and ordered 10 satellite TV channels, including both pro- and anti-government stations, to stop broadcasting.

    The caretaker government, wary of the army given its past interventions on the side of the establishment, said it welcomed the move to restore order and that it remained in office.

    "The army's actions must be under the framework of the Constitution," said Mr Niwatthamrong in a statement.

    Former premier Thaksin Shinawatra said on Twitter that the imposition of martial law was "expected" but must not "destroy" democracy.

    Kan Yuenyong at the Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank said: "For this to be a success, the army needs to act like a neutral force and not be seen to side with the anti-government protesters. It needs to offer an election date and start a political reform process at the same time."

    Under a law enacted in 1914, Thailand's army commander has the authority to declare martial law in the event of war or insurrection to maintain order. Once imposed, it can only be revoked by the palace with a royal decree.