BANGKOK – Thailand’s army declared martial law before dawn today in a surprise announcement it said was aimed at keeping the country stable after six months of sometimes violent political unrest. The military, however, denied a coup d’etat was underway.
The move effectively places the army in charge of public security nationwide. It comes one day after the Southeast Asian country’s caretaker prime minister refused to step down and follows six months of anti-government demonstrations that have failed to oust the government.
Armed troops entered multiple private television stations in Bangkok to broadcast their message and surrounded the national police headquarters in the city center. But the vast skyscraper-strewn metropolis of 10 million people appeared calm, and commuters could be seen driving and walking to work as usual.
On a major road in front of Central World, one of the country’s most luxurious shopping malls, bystanders gawked at soldiers in jeeps with mounted machine guns. The mood wasn’t tense; passers-by stopped to take cellphone photos of the soldiers.
An army official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, 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.”
Thailand’s army has staged 11 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.
Thailand, an economic hub for Southeast Asia, has been gripped by off-and-on political turmoil since 2006, when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled by a military coup after being accused of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The latest round of unrest started last November, when anti-government protesters took to the streets to try to oust then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister. She had dissolved the lower house of parliament in December in a bid to ease the crisis.
Earlier this month, the Constitutional Court ousted Yingluck and nine Cabinet ministers for abuse of power, but the move has done little to resolve the political conflict.