BANGKOK, Thailand – Thailand’s army chief assumed the role of mediator Wednesday by summoning the country’s key political rivals for face-to-face talks one day after imposing martial law. Residents, meanwhile, tried to make sense of the dramatic turn after six months of turmoil.
Around Bangkok there was little sign of any change, and most soldiers that had occupied key intersections in the capital a day earlier had withdrawn. People went about their work normally, students went to school, and the traffic was snarled as it would be any other weekday in this bustling city.
Martial law for now appeared to be playing out primarily behind closed doors, as army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha “invited” the key powerbrokers in the country’s latest political crisis to meet for the first time since it escalated six months ago.
The army interrupted regular programming on national television to announce the Wednesday afternoon meeting at Bangkok’s Army Club, which it said was being called “to solve the political conflict smoothly.”
Seven of the country’s highest profile political figures were summoned. They included the acting prime minister, anti-government protest leader Suthep Thausuban and his rival from the pro-government Red Shirt group, Jatuporn Prompan. Also summoned were leaders of the ruling Pheu Thai Party and the opposition Democrat Party, as well as the five-member Election Commission and representatives from the Senate.
The meeting of bitter political enemies was unlikely to yield any immediate resolution, but the event itself was a stunning development.
Prayuth invoked the military’s expanded powers Tuesday 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 military insisted it was not seizing power, but said it was acting to prevent violence and restore stability in the deeply divided country. Prayuth told a news conference Tuesday that without martial law imposed, the political opponents would never come together to broker peace.
“That’s why martial law was needed, or else who would listen?” said Prayuth. “If I call them in, they have to come.”
Prayuth has provided little clarity on a path forward, amid speculation both at home and abroad that the declaration of martial law was a prelude to a military coup.
Known to be gruff with the media, the army chief 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.”
The army banned demonstrators from marching outside their existing protest sites and banned any broadcast or publication that could “incite unrest.” Fourteen politically affiliated satellite and cable TV stations – on both sides of the political divide – were asked to stop broadcasting.
But for most people, there was no tangible change in their everyday life.
“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 Wednesday. “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.
Human Rights Watch criticized the Obama administration for failing to call for the immediate reversal of martial law. 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.”
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 protesters seeking to oust the current government.
It could play a key role in mediating a compromise to the political divide, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. But if it fails to do so, the losing side will likely launch more protests and spark more turmoil, he said.
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 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.
Jatuporn, the leader of the pro-government Red Shirt movement, has said his group could accept martial law, but wouldn’t tolerate a coup.
Associated Press writer Todd Pitman in Bangkok, and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.
© The Canadian Press, 2014