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Last night U.S. time the Thai military took control of the country’s broadcast networks and announced it was declaring martial law across the country, effectively putting the army in charge of all of Thailand, even though many provinces had been unaffected by the ongoing political strife in Bangkok. Whether or not the military has the legal basis to declare martial law remains unclear; the current Thai constitution seems to suggest that only the government—which means presumably the elected prime minister and cabinet—can declare martial law. The older constitution referred to by the military as its justification for intervening yesterday also states that a martial law order only can be revoked by a royal decree.
While declaring martial law, army commander Prayuth Chan-ocha also notably stated that this intervention was not a coup, and that Thai people should go about their business as usual. One Thai army official 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." Still, following Prayuth’s announcement the anti-government PDRC protestors cancelled planned demonstrations, and the pro-government/red shirt demonstrators and leaders who were planning to mass in Bangkok were notably more cautious about their plans after Prayuth’s announcement.
Whatever Prayuth says, the implication of the military intervention is that the army has in effect staged a coup, even if it does not want to admit it has done so. (After all, the 2006 coup did not go so well for the military and its appointed government.) If Thai people are now afraid to go about the daily activities of political participation, which include demonstrating, then normal politics have been upended, suggesting a coup has occurred. Indeed, the martial law order leaves open the possibility that the military could impose severe punishments for ordinary political activity. If the military is now taking control of not only security policy but many more aspects of policy-making, throughout the country, then normal politics have been suspended. If the caretaker government—which was by constitutional rights supposed to be overseeing Thailand until the next election—has been sidelined from policy-making, then normal politics have been suspended. Indeed, General Prayuth and the army apparently took this step without consulting the caretaker government, and the martial law order sidelines requires many ministries and other agencies to now report to the military’s new peacekeeping command center.
The Obama administration already has amassed an unfortunate history of not calling coups coups (see: Egypt), and of trying to play down military interventions in foreign countries. The U.S. embassy in Bangkok has, to this point, played a vital and even-handed role in helping mediate Thailand’s political crisis. The embassy and key actors in the U.S. government who have close ties to the Thai military should declare that this announcement does mean a coup has occurred, unless the Thai army makes clear that it will return policy-making to the hands of civilians. Civilians could then oversee martial law, at least for a period of time, but if the army is to oversee civilians, then it is a coup and should be called a coup—and the penalties for a coup should be imposed.