BANGKOK—A day after Thailand’s military imposed nationwide martial law, the country faced uncertainty over whether a coup d’Ã©tat was imminent or if its civilian leaders could broker a deal to end months of bitter and often violent feuding. [size=4][background=transparent]The military urged calm and insisted the declaration—made under a 100-year-old constitutional decree that gives the army sweeping powers to maintain order—wasn’t a coup. No curfew was imposed, and residents were encouraged to go about business as usual. Some Thais were seen taking pictures of themselves posed against soldiers who were deployed to the capital’s posh shopping districts.[/background][/size]
Avoiding a full-blown coup could depend largely on Thailand’s two main political factions agreeing to an interim solution to the impasse that has persisted for seven months. Neither officials nor the military indicated when or how such negotiations would begin.
Tuesday’s declaration of martial law bore hallmarks of the many coups the Thai military has staged since the end of absolute royal rule in the 1930s. The announcement came at 3 a.m. Tuesday, when most people were asleep, and government managers were instructed to report to the army’s top leaders for briefings. Troops were dispatched to television stations around Bangkok to make sure the martial law message was broadcast, while the army shut down transmission of partisan satellite and cable networks in a bid to take some of the heat out of the frequently violent conflict between the opposing political groups.
Whether those events turn out to be a precursor to a total military takeover depends largely on the difficult choices now facing army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. Despite Gen. Prayuth’s insistence that a coup wasn’t in motion, there was little doubt about who is now running Thailand, and the government wasn’t informed of Gen. Prayuth’s plans to declare martial law, a person familiar with the situation said.
If Gen. Prayuth can’t bring the factions together to break deadlock, he might have little choice but to move beyond the limited remedy of martial law and stage what would be the 19th coup effort the Thai military has undertaken over the past eight decades. “His options have really narrowed. I personally think that the declaration of martial law is a prelude to a coup,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University. “But either way, what really matters is that the military is in charge. I think we might soon see some kind of appointed prime minister.”
At the heart of the political crisis is a fundamental split over what Thailand’s future should look like. The antigovernment protesters who have been demonstrating on the streets of Bangkok for months are deeply loyal to the country’s royal family and staunchly opposed to the populist policies ofThaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire former prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 coup. The Red Shirt faction is a grass-roots movement committed to Mr. Thaksin’s brand of populism and firmly opposed to any non-democratically elected leader.
Some two dozen people have been killed in political violence since the a wave of protests began in November.
Declaring martial law is a high-risk gamble for Thailand, a mostly Buddhist nation of 66 million people that is already unsettled by the ailing health of its revered monarch, 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The military is still struggling with the aftermath of the 2006 coup that removed Mr. Thaksin from office, which hurt its standing at home and prompted the U.S. to briefly suspend military contacts with Thailand. Mr. Thaksin’s supporters in the current government and his followers in the Red Shirt movement have vowed to resist any moves to install an unelected prime minister, and are massing in large numbers in the western suburbs of Bangkok in support of the government’s call for fresh elections.
“The question is whether the Red Shirts will be willing to go along with negotiations to select an interim prime minister,” said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University and a member of a previous army-backed government. “The military is”¦betting that the players will negotiate. To do that, they have to back that up with credible force. If the Red Shirts don’t go along with the plan, the military might have to do more. That could bring more trouble for Thailand.”
The outcome matters for the U.S., too. The spectacle of Washington’s oldest treaty ally in Asia going off the democratic rails yet again risks undermining the Obama administration’s efforts to expand its influence in a region where China’s sway is growing.
U.S. officials at the State Department and Pentagon said Tuesday they expected the military to remain “true to its word” that its actions do not constitute a coup.
In recent months, Gen. Prayuth has repeatedly dismissed calls for the military to intervene. But as the political temperature rose, undermining an economy that registered a sharp 2.1% quarterly contraction in the first three months of the year, the threat of wider violence grew.
One flash point was the decision of Thailand’s Constitutional Court to dismiss Mr. Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, from her post as prime minister earlier this month. It was the third time a court had removed an elected leader since the 2006 coup.
Another key moment came last week when three people were killed by a drive-by shooting and grenade attack on an antigovernment demonstration.
The army declared that, among other things, it has the right to summon officials or other individuals for questioning. It warned media not to broadcast or publish material that could inflame the political situation. Ten satellite stations controlled by pro- and antigovernment groups were taken off the air. Tuesday afternoon, Gen. Prayuth urged government officials and their supporters to sit down with their opponents to find a way out of the impasse.
“We see [the declaration of martial law] as the beginning for the country to move forward to peace and order as soon as possible,” he said. “We will not allow bloodshed in the country.”
Key Red Shirt leaders indicated that they would be willing to sit down and talk with their opponents, but drew the line at acquiescing to the appointment of an unelected leader to replace the current acting prime minister, Ms. Yingluck’s former deputy, Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan.
“I wouldn’t say no to negotiations,” said Jatuporn Prompan, one of the most prominent figures in the movement. But, he added, “There must be no coup and no rogue prime minister.” Mr. Niwattumrong, who once served as an executive at one of Mr. Thaksin’s companies, said he plans to meet with Gen. Prayuth later this week.