May 20 2014

Army invokes martial law in Thailand: Should travellers be concerned?

Published by at 9:28 am under Coup 2014

Update: The military seized power in a coup as of 16:30 on Thursday, May 22. Protests have been peacefully dispersed and a curfew is enacted from 22:00 to 05:00 until further notice. Refer to this thread in the Travelfish forum for the latest.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced early Tuesday that the army has invoked martial law in Thailand, “to restore peace and order for people from all sides” of the kingdom’s political divide. The decision seems specifically aimed at taking the steam out of protests currently being held by both pro- and anti-government groups in different parts of Bangkok.

Peace! (Please.)

Peace! (Please.)

Martial law gives the military broad-ranging powers all geared towards maintaining national security (specifics summed up here), but it appears at this point that only select aspects of these will be employed. For example, a casual General Prayuth responded to the possibility of a curfew by joking, ”How about a curfew for the press?!” (via @Saksith)

To the casual observer whose not familiar with Thai politics, “martial law” may sound like a step away from war. Yet many Bangkokians are relieved to see order returned to their protest-shaken streets. Protest marches — such as one held by anti-government protesters that shut a major highway to Don Mueang airport last week  — are forbidden under the law. Armed military checkpoints have been set up around the city.

Soldiers are reportedly blocking any new protesters from joining the pro-government “red shirt” rally in far west Bangkok. The military has also entered parts of Government House at the anti-government site on Ratchadamnoen Nok Road without resistance. Both pro- and anti-government TV stations that typically broadcast protest speeches have been forced off the air, effectively silencing the mouthpieces of both sides.

The acting caretaker government — or what remained of it following PM Yingluck Shinawatra being removed from power by a controversial court ruling two weeks ago — was not informed of the military’s move before it was announced to the public. Military top brass have requested to meet remaining government officials this afternoon, while the acting cabinet is reportedly planning a private meeting of its own. In short, the military has firmly taken control of the situation in Bangkok.

As relayed by Asian Correspondent’s excellent live feed, legal analyst Veerapat Pareeyawong succinctly assessed the military’s options from here:

The military has two obvious choices: either use this opportunity to create a secured and inclusive environment for election and reform under civilian government; or to push for a pseudo-legitimate process that replaces the caretaking government with transitional guarantees for the traditional elites … With full powers in its hand there is no more excuse for the military to remain reluctant. The unmasking moment is coming.

The Bangkok Post’s Saritdet Marukatat highlighted the pressure now placed on the General’s shoulders:

Everything is up to Gen Prayuth now to show his calibre.

The military’s official stance is that martial law has been declared to restore order while preventing violent attacks such as the one that killed three and injured 22 at Democracy Monument last week. General Prayuth has been very careful to not take sides throughout this latest round of political turmoil that has periodically gripped the country since 2006. The General stressed that “This is not a coup … The public do not need to panic but can still live their lives as normal“. The mood in Bangkok is calm today.

Yet martial law could be used to maintain order if an interim prime minister is appointed by the Senate or courts, a possibility that some analysts feel is inevitable. An appointed prime minister and reform platform would achieve the anti-government protesters’ main goal — but at the same time spark fury on the pro-government side. A day after the caretaker prime minister and cabinet refused a Senate request to stand down, red shirt leaders are holding their ground:

Our stance still the same, UDD will not accept neutral PM, if soldier appoint PM, we will escalate our rally.@UDD / Team Thida

As of right now, apart from the possibility of seeing an increase in soldiers around Bangkok, the law means little for travellers on the ground. It could potentially make the overall situation safer due to the decreased likelihood of armed attacks on protesters and the thwarted movements of protesters. Anti-government protest leaders had previously vowed to step up a campaign of civil disobedience this week.

It’s also worth mentioning that the protests have had minimal effects on travellers since the “Bangkok Shutdown” fizzled in late February. A comment received today on Travelfish’s most recent protest update relates:

I am currently in Thailand, and have been for the last 3 weeks – primarily in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Other than reading the news, I would not have known there was anything to worry about. I am guessing the protest areas are pockets that travelers do not frequent at this point.

As a resident of Bangkok, I personally feel safer today than I did when protesters regularly marched around the city, masked anti-government “security guards” manned their own independent checkpoints, and the threat of clashes between the two sides loomed.

With that said, armed soldiers in the streets and censored media is far from a stable state of affairs. Developments have unfolded quickly so far today and it’s possible that the situation will change drastically from day to day — especially if a change in Thailand’s leadership takes place without an election.

In sum, we do not feel it’s necessary to avoid Bangkok as of right now, but travellers should monitor the situation closely. We recommend following Asian Correspondent’s live feed (linked to above) while also checking in with the Travelfish Facebook page and the following outlets.

Bangkok Post
Thai PBS
National News Bureau of Thailand
Bangkok Pundit
Richard Barrow
BBC News Asia

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One Response to “Army invokes martial law in Thailand: Should travellers be concerned?” ...

  1. […] Check out Thailand-based blogger Richard Barrow on Twitter for up-to-date travel and safety information on Thailand, while the folks over at TravelFish have this post on today’s events and the travel implications. […]