Thailand’s powerful army has declared martial law, deploying troops into the heart of Bangkok in a dramatic move it said is aimed at stabilising the country after six months of turbulent political unrest.
The surprise operation, which the military insisted is not a coup, places the army in charge of public security nationwide, and came amid deepening uncertainty over the nation’s fate and one day after the caretaker prime minister refused to step down in the face of long-running anti-government protests.
Although soldiers entered multiple television stations to broadcast the army message, life in the vast skyscraper-strewn metropolis of 10 million people remained largely unaffected, with schools, businesses and tourist sites open and traffic flowing as usual.
On a major road in front of one of the country’s most luxurious shopping centres, bystanders watched as soldiers in jeeps mounted with machine guns briefly diverted traffic. The mood was not tense; passers-by stopped to take mobile phone pictures of the soldiers.
Thailand, an economic hub for south-east Asia, has been gripped by off-and-on political turmoil since 2006 when former PM Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled by a military coup after being accused of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
His overthrow triggered a power struggle that continues to this day and in broad terms pits Thaksin’s supporters among a rural majority in the north and north-east against a conservative establishment in Bangkok and the south.
The army, which is seen by many as sympathetic to anti-government protesters, has staged 11 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. But it made no moves yesterday to dissolve the country’s constitution or its current caretaker government.