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Thailand Army Sees No Coup as Martial Law Imposed

Thai soldiers on Ratchadamri Road
A pedestrian walks past Royal Thai Army soldiers stationed on Ratchadamri Road in central Bangkok. Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

Thailand’s caretaker premier called for the military to avoid violence as the army chief imposed martial law after more than six months of political turmoil that brought down an elected leader.

“There must be no violence, no bias, equality for all parties and it should comply with the rule of law,” Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan said in a statement of the army’s efforts to quell protests. “The army’s action must be under the constitution with the king as the head of state.”

The imposition of martial law nationwide is not a coup, Army Chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha said on local television. The army is seeking to restore order and asks political groups to halt their protests, he said. There was an increased presence of soldiers and military vehicles in the capital Bangkok, although no curfew had been imposed.

“There will be a center to control order, headed by the army chief,” Prayuth said. “The center can enforce any law under the martial law act to control the situation effectively.”

The move is the army’s most direct involvement in the Southeast Asian nation’s politics since 2006, when then-premier Thaksin Shinawatra was removed in a coup, with Thai stocks and the baht falling. Martial law already is in place in parts of southern Thailand, and then-prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva briefly declared it in Bangkok in 2010 to end anti-government protests.

“The political crisis seems to have reached a tipping point,” said John Blaxland, a senior fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in Canberra. “The one institution that remains the arbiter of power in Thailand is the military. The politics have gotten so toxic there aren’t many viable alternatives to martial law.”

‘Many Protests’

Political polarization has escalated in the past decade over the role of Thaksin and his allies in a nation that’s seen 11 coups since the end of direct rule by kings in 1932. Thailand has been without a fully functioning government since December, when then-premier Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, called snap elections in a bid to ease the unrest.

“I will try to prevent any riots and bloodshed,” Prayuth told reporters today in Bangkok. “We will also refrain from any violation of human rights,” he said. “I invite all parties for talks to end the conflict.”

Anti-government protesters halted planned rallies today to assess the army’s decision, said Akanat Promphan, a spokesman for protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban.

The army said in a statement it would ban the broadcast of news that could “trigger fear among the public” and would take 11 satellite TV and radio stations off the air, including Bluesky, which is affiliated with the opposition Democrat party.

‘Limited Action’

“This seems like a state of emergency rather than a coup,” said Gavan Butler, an honorary associate with the University of Sydney’s Department of Political Economy who also teaches at Thammasat University in Bangkok. “It’s a limited action, not a signal for a coup, which the army has been signaling for months that it wants to avoid. Thais don’t get too fussed over a state of emergency. People will try to live their life as though not much has happened.”

The baht fell 0.2 percent to 32.534 against the dollar as of 3:54 p.m., according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The currency slid as much as 0.6 percent earlier, its sharpest decline since March 20. The benchmark stock index fell 1.1 today after an early decline of as much as 1.6 percent.

“Some foreign investors will dislike the martial law because it shows the situation is out of hand,” Prapas Tonpibulsak, chief investment officer at Krungsri Asset Management Co., which oversees about $7 billion in assets, said by phone. Still, the “intervention may force politicians to be more willing to go to the negotiating table now.”

U.S., China

The U.S. expects the Thai army to honor its commitment to take temporary action to prevent violence, “and not to undermine democratic institutions,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. “This development underscores the need for elections to determine the will of the Thai people.”

China hopes Thailand can resolve the crisis peacefully, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters today in Beijing. “China has always advocated that for the country’s long-term interest all parties in Thailand strengthen political dialogue and properly handle political differences to restore stability.”

The army acted a day after government data showed gross domestic product shrank 0.6 percent in the first three months of 2014 compared with a year earlier.

Thaksin Reacts

“Having the military in the headlines is never good for confidence but let’s also keep it in perspective, this also is not necessarily a new development in Thailand,” said Manpreet Gill, senior investment strategist at Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore.

“What we need to really do is see through this and say ‘we’ve had a lot of political uncertainty and does this make it worse or does it make it better’,” he said on Bloomberg Television. “So far indications have been mixed and not quite as negative as the headlines would suggest.”

The declaration of martial law is not a surprise, Thaksin said today on his official Twitter account.

“I hope no groups violate people’s human rights or further destroy the democratic process,” Thaksin said.

The army has ignored crimes committed by anti-government protest leaders, Pithaya Pookaman, a spokesman for the ruling Pheu Thai Party, said on Bloomberg Television. “The Army chief has not been very neutral as far as that goes,” Pithaya said.

‘Political Player’

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, has ruled since 1949. The monarch, whose portrait is hung in most homes and shops, was admitted to the hospital in September 2009, according to the Royal Household Bureau. The king moved in August last year to the Klai Kangwon Palace in the Hua Hin district of Prachuap Khiri Khan province.

“The political stage is precarious,” said Blaxland from the Australian National University. “It’s a constitutional monarchy that struggles with a king who’s very frail and no longer a political player.”

A February poll was disrupted by Suthep’s followers and the government and election officials were unable to schedule a new one before Yingluck was removed on May 7 after a court ruled she abused her power in office. Suthep’s protesters have derailed plans for a July 20 election and the army had said previously it may use force to counter any escalation of violence.

With his plan to replace the government with an appointed council no closer to reality, Suthep began a campaign to harass remaining ministers until they resigned. Jatuporn Prompan, leader of the Red Shirts, has called Suthep’s plan “impossible.”

“If Prayuth’s mission is in line with the announcement, that’s OK,” Jatuporn said today. “If it goes beyond that, if they overthrow the constitution, we will fight to the end.”

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