Worrying news from Thailand this week: The Royal Thai Army has declared martial law, amid a deepening, months-long political crisis in Thailand marked by furious protests. The Army maintain, however, that the move is not a coup — martial law is defined as the emergency imposition of military power over the region — but, rather, an effort to "restore law and order," as Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha put it. That's a claim that's giving some people pause, however, or at least causing a little concern — coups are very familiar to Thailand, which has sustained 18 attempted or successful military takeovers since 1932.
The impetus for all this took place on November 1, 2013, when the lower house of the Thai parliament voted in favor of a controversial bill, which critics insisted would grant legal amnesty to self-exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Also a fantastically wealthy telecom magnate, Shinawatra left Thailand in 2008 to duck a conviction on corruption charges, and a two-year jail sentence.
In the aftermath of the lower house's vote in favor, opposition to the bill galvanized into angry protests, spurring the parliament's upper house to vote to reject it. Notwithstanding, the protests intensified, culminating in a series of bloody incidents between pro-government and opposition members, a major ratcheting-up of tensions. On top of all that, Thailand's economy has begun to pay a toll for the violent political instability, as well.
The turmoil was to some extent driven by vehement opposition to which Prime Minister was in charge during the bill's consideration, as well — Yingluck Shinawatra, the first female Prime Minister in Thailand's history, and also notably the younger sister of the aforementioned Thaksin. She was elected in 2011 (Thailand is a constitutional monarchy), and on May 7, Thailand's constitutional court stripped her of her office, as well as several members of her cabinet, on abuse of power charges.
This tumultuous scene was the backdrop for the Army's decision to seize control, a move being backed by the caretaker government appointed following Yingluck's removal. As a Justice Minister told Reuters, in blunt and simple terms:
The government doesn't have a problem with this and can govern the country as normal.
It's not hard to see why many people are skeptical about the Army's insistence that their imposition of authority isn't a coup, or at the very least, skeptical that it couldn't become one. Just as Thailand has seen its share of coups over the last 82 years, a military coup against a caretaker government is a matter of their recent history — in 2006 just such a government, in the midst of furious political crisis, was toppled by a coup.
Recent reports from CNN now cite an aide to caretaker Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan, who characterized the state of affairs as "half a coup d'etat":
They took this action unilaterally. The government is having a special meeting regarding this. We have to watch and see if the army chief honors his declaration of impartiality.
Martial law reportedly went into effect at 3 PM Tuesday, and there have already been some uncompromising declarations — in a televised statement, the Army has stated that all the nation's TV and radio shows are subject to suspension "when it is needed." Which is to say, at this point, whenever they decide.