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Thailand's Army Intervenes. But Please, Don't Call It a Coup

Troops taking positions outside the Centre for the Administration of Peace and Order in Bangkok

Photograph by Wason Wanichakorn/AP Photo

Troops taking positions outside the Centre for the Administration of Peace and Order in Bangkok

Thailand’s generals have finally intervened, as everyone knew they would. The military has declared martial law in an attempt to end the crisis that has paralyzed the country’s government and dragged the economy to the brink of recession. After the ouster of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra early this month and moves to kick out her successor, Army Chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha has offered a clear message for the country: He’s in charge. “There will be a center to control order, headed by the army chief,” Prayuth said on Thai television. “The center can enforce any law under the martial law act to control the situation effectively.”

Soldiers may be on the streets of Bangkok, but the army has a request: Please, don’t call what they’ve just done a coup. The imposition of martial law is not a coup, Prayuth said.

Thailand has had plenty of coups over the years, so people in the country know a military takeover when they see one. While the latest move by the generals has left in place the pro-Shinawatra prime minister for now, the government’s days seem numbered.

Why intervene now, after having spent so many months on the sidelines? The generals probably had little desire to stage a full-fledged coup because the military’s track record has been so poor. Thailand’s current troubles started in 2006 with a coup that ousted Yingluck’s brother, billionaire populist Thaksin Shinawatra. In subsequent years, Thailand has lurched from crisis to crisis. Judges took the lead this time, with the constitutional court on May 7 ousting Yingluck on charges of abuse of power.

But the Shinawatra forces didn’t crumble. They managed to cobble together a new government led by Deputy Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan. That left the pro-establishment Yellow Shirts no closer to ending the crisis. On Saturday, members of the Senate, (composed of both elected and appointed representatives) said they would try to dump the current government and install a new prime minister. That could  provoke outrage from Shinawatra supporters in Thailand’s rural north and northeast.

Hence the need for the generals and the coup-that’s-not-a-coup. “The declaration of martial law is likely designed to pre-empt any Red Shirt uprising in the capital following the Senate’s nomination of a new government, which is likely in the next weeks,” Alecia Quah, senior analyst with IHS Country Risk, wrote in a report published today.

The army may need to take further action because the Red Shirts aren’t likely to go home quietly. “There is an increased risk of Red Shirt paramilitary cells staging sporadic attacks on opposition-affiliated assets by cover of night within Bangkok,” wrote Quah.

Einhorn is Asia regional editor in Bloomberg Businessweek’s Hong Kong bureau. Follow him on Twitter @BruceEinhorn.

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