Thailand's Army Chief, Gen Prayuth Chan-Ocha, imposed martial law for the entire kingdom at 3am on Tuesday, 20 May, saying the army's intention was to prevent further violence. The activation of martial law came without consultation with the government; many people did not even know about it until late morning when they found out via social media.
It is not clear what the military will do next, but there are three broad scenarios.
First, the military may move to restore the democratic process by allowing a new election in the near future (the interim prime minister has suggested 3 August). Leaders of the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), who have disrupted previous elections and whose aim is to install an unelected people's council, could be brought to justice. This is not likely, unfortunately, since it means the defeat of the PDRC. Its supporters, who include a large group of Thai elites, probably won't let this happen.
Second, the imposition of martial law may lead to some sort of political compromise. It may act as a way for PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban to end his half-year rally without losing face. Since the military should have learnt from its experience that a coup would not be to its benefit, a dialogue to end the political stalemate may proceed. However, this may take time until both sides agree to adjust their positions on how to end the conflict (eg. the pro-government forces want an election first, then reform; the PDRC wants reform first).
In the third and more pessimistic scenario, martial law may pave the way towards fulfilling the PDRC's goal.
Many within the PDRC have called for military intervention, and the imposition of martial law has created hope among PDRC supporters that the military is backing its demands. Many of them welcomed the military's action by taking selfies with tanks and soldiers on the street. Although the military has insisted it is neutral in this conflict, it has shown sympathy towards the anti-government group on many occasions. For example, the military has ignored the darrest warrants issued against PDRC leaders for insurrection. Senior army officers are regularly seen talking with PDRC leaders without arresting them. The seizure of the Government House by the PDRC on 10 May saw an 'official handover' of the control of the premises by the army officer to the PDRC leader.
Recent development suggests the third scenario may be likely. After meeting with the Army Chief, the secretary-general of the Electoral Commission revealed that Gen Prayudh believes that any election likely to lead to conflict should be delayed. Further breaches of the constitution, including a suspension of certain clauses, should also be expected. And freedom of speech is increasingly being violated. The military has ordered media censorship, with many TV programs that focus on political discussion banned from airing. Today the army ordered academics to refrain from giving political opinions in public.
The army's actions are little different from staging a coup. The intervention by the military may delay confrontation between the two sides, but it does not provide an exit. Further military intervention will arouse pro-democracy supporters and escalate the conflict. Unless Thailand can put itself on the right track now, a civil war awaits.
Photo by Flickr user Victor Dumesny.