By Ernie Bower & Murray Hiebert
The Thai military’s imposition of martial law on May 20 in response to six months of political turmoil, and its insistence that it did not stage a coup could create more than a little heartburn in Washington in the weeks ahead. Under U.S. law, certain sanctions kick in if a country receiving military aid suffers a military coup. Exactly what the military intends to do in Thailand probably won’t be known for several days.
A State Department spokesman called on the Thai military to ensure that martial law was only temporary and did not undermine democracy. Spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement that “We expect the Army to honor its commitment to make this a temporary action to prevent violence, and not undermine democratic institutions.” She added, “The United States firmly believes all parties must work together to resolve differences through dialogue and find a way forward. This development underscores the need for elections to determine the will of the Thai people.”
Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha said the military had moved to prevent a worsening of the political conflict in a nation where, since last November, opponents of the populist Pheu Thai government have been protesting on the streets of Bangkok in an effort to topple the government. On the other side, protestors often called Red Shirts have served as staunch supporters of the Pheu Thai government. More than 24 people have been killed since the protests started.
Gen. Prayuth cited a 1914 law, implemented at a time when Thailand still had an absolute monarchy, which gives the military “superior power over the civil authority” to maintain order. Soldiers were stationed at key intersections in Bangkok after the announcement and the military said it had banned 10 partisan cable television channels and would censor any media “detrimental to national security.”
Gen. Prayuth, in briefing the civil service, said the military will deal only with the permanent secretaries (career civil service officials) in the government and not directly with any of the ministers in the Pheu Thai caretaker government. In the near term, the bureaucracy can be expected to slow down decision making because it will fear the risk of reprisals and second guessing when a new government is put in place.
Most analysts and observers believe the military’s move is a tacit coup. The military is ostensibly moving in to avoid clashes and violence, but it appears to be closely coordinated with steps in the Senate to unilaterally move ahead with putting a selected interim government in place to replace the current caretaker government.
In response to the announcement of martial law, the anti-government protest group People’s Democratic Reform Council quickly announced the cancellation of its planned march the following day against the Pheu Thai government, suggesting that the protestors think they are getting what they want – a handpicked interim government.
On the other side, the pro-government Red Shirts vowed to dig in and continue their protests. In response, the military has reportedly encircled the Red Shirts’ protest site. Based on recent history this could be a dangerous situation – in 2010 more than 90 people were killed when the military moved to oust Red Shirt protestors from the streets of Bangkok.
Most observers do not believe the conflict in Thailand will end any time soon. They see the two main political factions as locked in an existential battle for Thailand’s future, struggling to determine which side will be in charge of key government institutions when the inevitable transition from the current king takes place. The situation will remain unstable for the near term. Neither side will give up their fight. Thailand no longer has its traditional “reset button” – a monarchy willing to step in – as one Thailand expert said in a conference at CSIS last week.
The full implications for U.S. policy probably will not be known for several days and may depend on the next steps taken by the Thai military to control political power. The 1961 Foreign Assistance Act says the United States “restricts assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” If in the days ahead Washington determines that a coup has taken place in Thailand, the United States will be required to end much of its aid.
Following the last military coup in 2006 which ousted then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the United States froze military aid to Thailand including funds for military sales, training of officers under the International Military Education and Training program, and funding for peacekeeping and counter-terrorism training.
In the midst of the political turmoil, it is important that the United States keeps stressing, particularly in private meetings with military leaders and the two main political factions, the importance of Thailand moving quickly to protect democracy and respect for rule of law, avoid violence, and restore a new government through democratic means.
Mr. Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser and holds the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @BowerCSIS. Mr. Murray Hiebert is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @MurrayHiebert1.
Ernest Bower is senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies & codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS.