BANGKOK – Thailand began its second day under martial law Wednesday with little visible military presence on the streets of Bangkok as residents tried to make sense of the dramatic turn of events after six months of anti-government protests and political turmoil.
A flurry of meetings were planned behind closed doors among senior government officials, opposition party leaders, the Election Commission and others a day after the country’s powerful army chief invoked the military’s expanded powers and issued more than a dozen edicts that included broad powers of censorship over the media, the Internet and vaguely defined threats to prosecute opponents.
The army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha provided little clarity or a path forward during a press conference Tuesday amid speculation both at home and abroad that the declaration of martial law was a prelude to a military coup.
Prayuth, who is known to be gruff with the media, deflected questions about the likelihood of a coup with flippant answers that added to the confusion. Asked if a coup was taking shape, he replied: “That’s a question that no one is going to answer.”
Asked if the army was keeping in contact with the government, he answered: “Where is the government right now? Where are they now? I don’t know.”
Among the dozen or measures announced Tuesday, the military said it was banning demonstrators from marching outside their protest sites and banning any broadcast or publication that could “incite unrest.” Fourteen politically affiliated satellite and cable TV stations were also asked to stop broadcasting.
But around Bangkok, there was little sign of any change, and most soldiers that had occupied key intersections around the capital had withdrawn. People went about their work normally, students went to school, and the traffic was snarled as it would be any other day in this bustling city.
“After 24 hours of martial law, I have not spotted a single soldier,” said Buntham Lertpatraporn, a 50-year-old vendor of Thai-style doughnuts in the capital’s central business district along Silom Road. “I’ve only seen soldiers on TV.”
“My life has not changed at all,” he said. “But in my mind I feel a little frightened, because I don’t know how it will end.”
In Washington, the top American diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, called for the early restitution of democracy and free and fair elections after the military intervened after months of violent political unrest.
But Human Rights Watch criticized the Obama administration for failing to call for the immediate reversal of martial law, saying that would be the quickest path to restore democracy. The group issued a statement that called the army’s move and its broad restrictions “effectively a coup that threatens the human rights of all Thais.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon echoed calls from across the international community, urging Thailand to respect democratic principles and for all sides in the tense conflict to “exercise utmost restraint (and) refrain from any violence.”
Thailand, an economic hub for Southeast Asia whose turquoise waters and idyllic beaches are a world tourist destination, has been gripped by off-and-on political turmoil since 2006, when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled by a military coup after being accused of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for Thailand’s king.
His overthrow triggered a power struggle that in broad terms pits Thaksin’s supporters among a rural majority against a conservative establishment in Bangkok.
The army action came a day after Thailand’s caretaker prime minister refused to step down, resisting pressure from a group of senators calling for a new interim government with full power to conduct political reforms.
It also followed threats by anti-government protesters to intensify their campaign to oust the ruling party, and an attack last week on protesters that killed three people and injured over 20.
The military, which has staged 11 successful coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, is widely seen as sympathetic to the protest movement.
In the military announcement, Prayuth cited a 1914 law giving authority to intervene during crises. He said the military was acting to prevent street clashes between political rivals, and that it would “bring back peace and order to the beloved country of every Thai as soon as possible.”
“The key going forward will be the military’s role in politics,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “If they play the role of enforcer of law and order and even mediator … this could be a resolution to the impasse.”
But if they don’t, “we can expect protests and turmoil from the losing side.”
The latest round of unrest started in November, when demonstrators took to the streets to try to oust then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister. She dissolved the lower house of Parliament in December in a bid to ease the crisis, and later led a weakened, caretaker government.
Earlier this month, the Constitutional Court ousted Yingluck and nine Cabinet ministers for abuse of power. But the move, which left the ruling party in charge, did little to resolve the conflict.
The anti-government protesters want an interim, unelected government to implement vaguely defined reforms to fight corruption — and to remove the Shinawatra family’s influence from politics. Critics at home and abroad call the idea unconstitutional and undemocratic.
The leader of the pro-government Red Shirt movement, Jatuporn Prompan, said his group could accept martial law, but wouldn’t tolerate a coup.
“We will see what the army wants,” he said, warning that the undemocratic removal of the country’s caretaker government “will never solve the country’s crisis and will plunge Thailand deeper into trouble.”