The Martial Law Decree We All Saw Coming

Six days ago, Amy Searight, the deputy secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, praised the Thai armed services' "restraint and professionalism" throughout the country's ongoing political crisis. "I don't want to say we're overconfident about any outcome," she said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington last week, referring to the possibility of the generals intervening in the country's domestic politics.  "At this point in time, we don't have reason to expect that the Thai military will change their current stance."

Her trust seems to have been misplaced. After six months of anti-government demonstrations in Thailand that left at least 24 people dead, wounded hundreds more, and saw the country's prime minister deposed, the army finally stepped in to try to quell the political unrest that has paralyzed Bangkok since November.

At around 3 AM on Tuesday, May 19 -- one day after the country's caretaker government publicly refused to accede to protesters' demands to resign --  Thailand's army chief general, Prayuth Chan-ocha, declared martial law, giving the military wide-ranging responsibility over national security. A message that ran on an Army-controlled television station declared that the the military "aims to keep peace and maintain the safety and security of the people of all sides."

The decision comes after months in which the military remained sidelined as anti-government protesters massed on Bangkok's major arteries, stormed government buildings, and even clashed with other security forces. Yet despite the force's restraint since November, today's announcement came as little surprise.

In contrast to most announcements of martial law around the globe -- an emergency response to a situation that has rapidly and inextricably deteriorated -- Thailand's declaration was more of a slow burn. For Thai observers, this military crackdown was wholly predictable.

On December 2, 2013, just a few weeks after protests began, Pimpaka Nichgaroon, the head of research for Thanachart Securities in Bangkok, warned of military intervention. The risk of such a move, she wrote in a report, rose "from only 5 percent a month ago to a 50 percent probability now."

The headlines told the story from there. On Dec. 13, 2013: "Thailand on the brink of military intervention - again." One month later: "Is Thailand Heading Toward a Coup This Week?" In January, rumors of a military intervention amid ongoing anti-government demonstrations forced the army chief to publicly dismiss the possibility of an impending coup.  

The predictions followed a familiar script. The Thai army has a long history of intervening in domestic political disputes, initiating 11 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. Most analyses of the Thai protests have assumed that a military coup was the desired end result for anti-government protesters. Comprised primarily of urban elites and southerners, the demonstrators are loyal to an opposition party that lacks the votes to win an electoral majority in fair elections. After repeated failures to capture power at the polls, a military intervention is one of the few avenues to unseating the existing government.

Many contend that the protesters have sought to sow chaos in effort to create the pretext for military a coup. They may be close to achieving that goal. The generals, though, have been careful to stress that that the army's actions do not constitute a coup. According to a military statement reported by the New York Times, the martial law moves some government security powers to a body controlled by the military. The exact extent of the military's new authority remains somewhat unclear.

Despite predictions that the army would intervene, the generals had previously stayed largely quiet throughout the latest crisis. But when the government refused to step down on January 19, three days after the army warned it would use "full force" to suppress future violence, most saw the writing on the wall. A few hours before the announcement of martial law, the Bangkok Post ran an op-ed entitled "All roads are leading to martial law."  

"Simply continuing to push for an election will only deepen the crisis to the point when a military takeover will become inevitable," Atiya Achakulwisut, a contributing editor for the Post, wrote in the editorial, referring to the caretaker government.

Hours later, the troops were deployed.



How Much Economic Espionage Is Too Much?

"If we spy for military security, why shouldn't we spy for economic security?"

Those were the words not of an aggressive Chinese spy but none other than Stansfield Turner, the Carter-era CIA director, who in 1992 argued that the United States should more aggressively carry out intelligence operations aimed at securing America's leading economic position in the world.

If it weren't for matters of patriotism, the former CIA director probably wouldn't raise an eyebrow at allegations of Chinese spying unveiled by a Pennsylvania grand jury and the Department of Justice on Monday.

Indeed, the tactics the Obama administration has accused China of using have also been debated at the highest levels of the U.S. government as possible instruments of American power. Other countries haven't been so gun shy and have carried out operations strikingly similar to those a Pennsylvania grand jury have accused Chinese spies of carrying out.

In the 1970s and 1980s, French agents planted moles inside IBM and Texas Instruments and forwarded the material they collected to a French computer company. Microphones planted in the seats of Air France to pick up talk among traveling businessmen have become a piece of intelligence lore.

The French, it seems, think Americans should feel flattered at the attention. "In economics, we are competitors, not allies," Pierre Marion, the former French intelligence boss, once said."America has the most technical information of relevance. It is easily accessible. So naturally your country will receive the most attention from the intelligence services."

But even if there is scant evidence of American companies spying on behalf of, say, General Motors, U.S. spies have certainly embraced the notion of economic espionage that Robert Gates,  then the director of the CIA, laid out in the early 1990s. In 1995, for example, the New York Times revealed that U.S. agents aggressively spied on Japanese officials engaged in trade negotiations with the United States.

More recently, documents released by Edward Snowden showed that U.S. agents spied on the Brazilian oil giant Petrobras. Other documents revealed that U.S. and British spies targeted the European Union official responsible for competition policy and sensitive anti-trust cases. And according to the New York Times, the NSA targeted servers belonging to the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in a purported effort to determine the company's links with the Chinese army.

This turn toward espionage and companies and strategic industries is of a part with the changes visited upon the American intelligence community following the fall of the Soviet Union, when the CIA went through something of an existential crisis. With its main adversary now defeated, what would be the purpose of the agency and against whom would it fight? In the go-go days of the early 1990s, before the emergence of a new terrorist threat, the agency alighted upon economic competitors as its new focus.

In 1992 Gates, observed the "increased importance of international economic affairs as an intelligence issue." The agency had been forced to adjust accordingly. "Nearly 40 percent of the new requirements are economic in nature," Gates said. "The most senior policymakers of the government clearly see that many of the most important challenges and opportunities through and beyond the end of this decade are in the international economic arena."

But the agency, he emphasized, would not engage in commercial spying -- that is, passing on helpful information to U.S. companies. A 2007 CIA paper documented the tortured debate over whether the United States should spy on behalf of its corporations. The problems, the paper concludes, are myriad and a decision to engage in corporate espionage could spur international conflict. Moreover, the paper argues, the benefits of corporate espionage are difficult to calculate and impossible to evaluate against the costs.

The Chinese, like the French, have made a different calculation.