BANGKOK — Thailand’s army declared martial law before dawn Tuesday in a surprise announcement it said was aimed at keeping the country stable after six months of sometimes violent political unrest. The military, however, denied a coup d’etat was underway.
The move effectively places the army in charge of public security nationwide. It comes one day after the Southeast Asian country’s caretaker prime minister refused to step down and follows six months of anti-government demonstrations that have failed to oust the government.
Armed troops entered multiple private television stations in Bangkok to broadcast their message and surrounded the national police headquarters in the city center. But the vast skyscraper-strewn metropolis of 10 million people appeared calm, with schools open and commuters driving and walking to work as usual.
On a major road in front of Central World, one of the country’s most luxurious shopping malls, bystanders gawked at soldiers in jeeps mounted with machine-guns who diverted traffic. The mood wasn’t tense; passers-by stopped to take cellphone pictures of the soldiers.
An army official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, told The Associated Press “this is definitely not a coup. This is only to provide safety to the people and the people can still carry on their lives as normal.”
Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitisiri told The Associated Press the army had not consulted the Cabinet. He played down the move, saying the caretaker government was still running the country but that the army was now in charge of security.
“Security matters will be handled solely by the military, and whether the situation intensifies or is resolved is up to them,” he said. “There is no cause to panic. Personally, I welcome the move.”
Thailand’s army has staged 11 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.
Thailand, an economic hub for Southeast Asia, 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 King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The latest round of unrest started last November, when anti-government protesters took to the streets to try to oust then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister. She had dissolved the lower house of parliament in December in a bid to ease the crisis.
Earlier this month, the Constitutional Court ousted Yingluck and nine Cabinet ministers for abuse of power, but the move has done little to resolve the political conflict that pits the rural poor majority who support Yingluck and her opponents that largely come from the urban middle and upper class.
Competing protests in Bangkok have raised concerns of more violence, which were heightened by anti-government protesters who set a Monday deadline for achieving their goals of ousting the remnants of the government.
An overnight attack last week on the main anti-government protest site left three dead and more than 20 injured. It raised the toll since November to 28 dead and drew a strong televised rebuke from the army chief.
“This week looked ominous,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “There was a strong likelihood of violence and turmoil.”
“Martial law is intended to impose peace and order, but the key will be the army treatment of the two sides,” Thitinan said. “If the army is seen as favoring one side over the other, then we could see the situation spiral and deteriorate. If the army is seen as even-handed … we could actually see the situation improving.”
The military statement issued Tuesday was signed by army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who later read it on air and asked people not to panic.
He cited a 1914 law that gives the authority to intervene during times of crisis, and said it had taken the action because ongoing mass rallies between political rivals “could impact the country’s security and safety of the lives and public property.”
The leader of the pro-government Red Shirt movement, Jatuporn Prompan, said his group could accept the imposition of martial law, but said they “won’t tolerate a coup or other non-constitutional means” to grab power.
“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.”
Red Shirts had been massing for days on the outskirts of Bangkok, and Jutaporn said his supporters were being “surrounded.” More than 100 soldiers deployed near the rally venue with coils of barbed wire to block roads; they appeared to be taking over control of the area from police and took positions on roads leading to the protest site.
On Monday, Thailand’s acting prime minister insisted his government will not resign, resisting pressure from a group of senators who are seeking ways to settle the country’s political crisis, and from anti-government protesters who are demanding an appointed prime minister.
A group of about 70 senators, most of whom are seen as siding with the anti-government protesters, proposed a framework on Friday that calls for a government with full power to conduct political reforms.
Acting Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan and Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitisiri met with two representatives of the Senate in an undisclosed location Monday to avoid disruption from the protesters.
After the meeting, Niwattumrong said the Cabinet cannot resign because it would be unconstitutional to do so. He insisted he “can carry out duties and has full authority” as prime minister.
The Senate, the only functioning legislative body in the country, was seen as the last resort of the anti-government protesters, who are calling for an interim, unelected prime minister to be chosen.
The protesters say they are making their final push to oust the government and install an unelected prime minister and government. They have promised to call off their rallies if they are not successful by May 26, following six months of street demonstrations in which 28 people have died and hundreds of others have been injured.
The protesters on Monday began searching for members of the Cabinet at their residences to pressure them to resign, but did not find any.
Labor unions representing about 20 state-owned enterprises vowed to go on strike Thursday to support the anti-government protesters, although several companies, including Thai Airways and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, said Monday that they would operate normally.
Associated Press writer Jocelyn Gecker contributed to this report.