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Meet the Law at the Heart of Thailand’s Pseudo-Coup

During the early morning hours on Tuesday, Thailand's army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, declared martial law throughout the country, handing the security forces he leads significant new authority to maintain public order. Yet one day after the announcement, the army's footprint remains relatively light. Security forces have been deployed at various points throughout Bangkok and the generals have censored information from media outlets that "distorts" public understand. But the civilian government remains intact in the capital and the army has repeatedly assured journalists that it has no plans to remove them from power.

But while it remains unclear to what extent the generals plan to assert control over the government, one thing is certain: They have granted themselves the legal authority to do so. The law under which the generals intervened -- the 1914 Martial Law Act -- gives them "superior power", should they choose to use it, over civilian institutions. The law provides the armed forces the power to censor the media, ban assembly, and even dissolve the sitting government -- as they've done 11 times before.

Martial law is nothing new in Thailand. Prior to Tuesday's announcement, it had already been in force in dozens of provinces across Thailand, particularly the southern regions where an ethnic insurgency has been raging for years, according to Sam Zarifi, Asia-Pacific Regional Director at the International Commission of Jurists.

Thai military training documents provided to Foreign Policy by Zarifi state the law "often serves as a tool or a legal measure for supporting the military in maintaining national stability during crisis." The act served as the legal framework behind each of the Thailand's 11 coups since 1932, when the country first transitioned away from absolute monarchy.

The law gives the military wide-ranging and, frankly, vague powers. The measure can be implemented in specific localities and grants the Thai armed forces, according to a translation of the original language of the Martial Law Act, "superior power over civil authority in regard to military operation, desistence [sic] or suppression, or keeping public order." The military also gains authority to try and adjudicate criminal court cases within the area of control. Finally, according to the translation, the law grants the military "full power of search, compulsory requisition, prohibition, seizure, staying in, destruction or alteration of any place and turning out of any persons."

In short, the act strips citizens of their most basic liberties. Under martial law, according to Sunai Phasuk, the senior Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch, "there is no check and balance; there is no safeguards against rights violations; there is no remedies for any damage cause by the army."

Prior to Tuesday morning's pseudo-coup, the military has used the law to enhance their authority in Thailand's restive southern provinces, where security forces have been waging a war against Muslim separatists since 2004. In November 2005, for example, General Khwanchart Klaharn, then the top security official in the south, declared martial law in two districts of Songkhla Province after a spate of bombings. Battling a tough insurgency, the measure allowed the military to carry out arrests and searches without a warrant.

In a measure of the army's power in Thailand, the law declares that any commander of "at least one battalion, or of any military fort, barrack, or forfeited area" has the "power to proclaim Martial Law" within their area of responsibility. Given the size of the Thai military, that is not a particularly exclusive club.

Martial law has often been used in tandem with emergency decrees. In January, in response to outbreaks of violence during anti-government rallies, Thailand's civilian authorities announced a 60-day emergency decree in Bangkok and the surrounding provinces.

But according to Zarifi, martial law is significantly more restrictive. "The big difference between the emergency regime in Bangkok and martial law is that under the latter, the military assumes ultimate and wide-ranging authority without civilian oversight," Zarifi said.

This, in essence, is why the recent announcement bodes ill for Thailand's democracy. While the generals maintain that this is not a coup, they retain all the legal authority they need to perpetrate one. "Military spokesmen have denied their intervention is a coup," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement released today. "But what else can one call a situation where the army chief has completely seized power from a civilian administration?"

Indeed, the current political crisis in Thailand hinges on whether the country's elite institutions will respect the outcomes of democratic elections. Since November 2013, Bangkok has been paralyzed by a confrontation between Thailand's two primary political factions: The ruling Pheu Thai party and anti-government demonstrators loyal to the opposition Democrat party. Unable to win at the ballot box, the opposition has taken to the streets in an attempt to topple the government.

The protesters, made up primarily of urban elites and southerners, sought to undermine the sitting administration, led by Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was himself deposed in a military coup in 2006 and has faced allegations of corruption while in office. While the constitutional court ousted Yingluck in early May, demonstrators opposed to the Shinawatra political clan remained on the streets, demanding the resignation of a caretaker government.

After months of protests left almost 30 people dead and hundreds injured, the army announced martial law in an effort to quell the political unrest.  

After the announcement, machine-gun mounted military jeeps patrolled the streets and troops secured television stations. The army ordered at least 10 satellite TV channels to cease broadcasting and demanding that both pro- and anti-government demonstrations, encamped in different parts of the capital, stay where they are.

But, remember, this isn't a coup.

PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images

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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.

CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images