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Thailand army declares martial law

- Intervention not a coup, insists military; Opposition TV stations shut down

Bangkok, May 20 (Reuters): Thailand’s army declared martial law nationwide today to restore order after six months of street protests that have left the country without a proper functioning government, but insisted the surprise intervention was not a military coup.

While troops patrolled parts of Bangkok and army spokesmen took to the airwaves, the caretaker government led by supporters of self-exiled former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra said it was still running the country.

Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha said the military had stepped in to restore order and build investor confidence, and warned that troops would take action against anyone who used weapons and harmed civilians. “We ask all sides to come and talk to find a way out for the country,” Prayuth told reporters after meeting directors of government agencies and other high-ranking officials.

Military officials said they were not interfering with the caretaker government, but ministers were not informed of the army's plan before an announcement on television at 2000GMT and Prayuth said martial law would be maintained until peace and order had been restored.

Twenty-eight people have been killed and 700 injured since the anti-government protests began in November last year.

The crisis is the latest instalment of a near-decade-long power struggle between former telecoms tycoon Thaksin and the royalist establishment that has brought the country to the brink of recession and even raised fears of civil war.

Troops, some in jeeps mounted with machineguns, stopped some traffic from entering Bangkok after the martial law order. They also took up position at some intersections and secured television stations, but life went on as normal in most of the city.

Both pro- and anti-government protesters are camped out at different places in the capital and, to prevent clashes, the army told them they had to stay put. The army also ordered 10 satellite TV channels, both pro- and anti-government, to stop broadcasting.

The caretaker government, wary of the army given its past interventions on the side of the establishment, said it welcomed the move to restore order and that it remained in office.

Thailand has been stuck in political limbo since Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister, and nine of her ministers were dismissed on May 7 after a court found them guilty of abuse of power.

The military, which put down a pro-Thaksin protest movement in 2010, has staged numerous coups since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. The last one was in 2006 to oust Thaksin, who has lived abroad since 2008 but wields political influence and commands huge support among the poor.

Anti-government protesters want a “neutral” prime minister to oversee electoral reforms aimed at ending Thaksin's influence. They disrupted a February 2 election that Thaksin’s loyalists looked set to win. It was later declared void.

The government, on the other hand, views an early general election it would likely win as the best way forward.

Caretaker Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan said he had asked the Election Commission to set the ballot for August 3 and he was in talks with the army. “Right now, we are talking to the army chief's side and there are many pressing issues we need to discuss including elections and reform,” Niwatthamrong told reporters.

 
 
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