- By Jake Scobey-ThalJake Scobey-Thal is assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy. Previously, he worked as a freelance reporter in Myanmar and as the Asia Associate for Human Rights Watch. His articles have appeared in The Nation, Next City magazine, and Salon among others. He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
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.