Since rolling Humvee’s and trucks laden with armed troops through Bangkok in the early hours of Tuesday (May 20) Thailand’s National Peace and Order Maintaining Council (NPOMC) has gradually withdrawn the majority of soldiers from public view, at the same time issuing a steady stream of orders broadcast on Thai television.
Of 12 such martial law orders to date five have restricted freedom of expression and placed increasing tighter restrictions on Thailand media rights and freedoms. This includes prohibiting news media from carrying content such as interviews with former government officials, academics, and civil society that could cause opposition to the NPOMC.
In the first 24 hours 14 satellite television operators and hundreds of community radio stations were shut-down, while soldiers were reportedly stationed inside newsrooms “monitoring every word that is being broadcast”, with anything even mildly critical of the imposition of martial law banned, one TV journalist said.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), academics, human rights, and consumer groups have widely condemned the Thailand media clampdown.
Locally various industry associations and individual media organisation owners yesterday filed appeal letters with the NPOMC over shutdowns and restrictions.
While Thai army soldiers still surround the pro-government United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) “red-shirts” protest stage on the western outskirts of Bangkok, there is none visible at the sandbag bunker reinforced People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protest site in front of the UN headquarters and extending around Government House.
Freedom to enter, search, and detain
Amongst other things, the imposition of martial law enables the military to search people, vehicles, homes and buildings and inspect messages, letters, parcels, books and other publications without a warrant. It can also prohibit meetings or gatherings, restrict print and broadcast media and limit movement by land, water, or air, in addition to banning the possession of “communication devices”.
Although Thailand army chief General Prayut Chan-o-cha has continually denied the imposition of martial law is a coup, stating “my job is to keep peace and order”, many are calling it “a half-a coup”, “a coup by another name”, or “a slow-moving coup”.
After months of “fence-sitting” the move by the Royal Thai Army (RTA) to take on the role of “honest broker” and attempt to mediate a peaceful solution is one of the scenarios, though General Chan-o-cha is not known for his patience or diplomacy.
While the army has not banned political rallies, it has ordered pro- and anti-government protesters to confine rallies to their two well separated protest sites.
Red-shirt leaders have cautiously accepted in good faith assurances that the military have only deployed to ensure no more deaths occur, with 28 people having been killed and some 800 injured since mass protests against the then government’s blanket amnesty bill erupted in October last year (See: Amnesty Bill Sets Thai Political “Carnival Wheel” Spinning Again). Its leadership has warned though that the wrath of the movement will descend on Bangkok should democracy be suspended.
At the Chaeng Wattana rally site near the government complex, rebel monk Buddha Issara (See: Thailand’s Bad Boy Monk Buddha Issara Keeps Getting Worse) said he would suspend his protest activities to comply with the martial law orders.
Elections in August, October or 2017
Recently deposed caretaker prime minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan said he had submitted a proposal to the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) for it to hold a fresh Thailand general election on August 3, however at a meeting with the NPOMC on Wednesday, the EC countered with plans for an election in five months time, or in one or two years – a suggestion that will no-doubt raise the anger of the red-shirt movement.
According to Khaosod English, Election Commissioner Somchai Srisuthiyakorn told journalists: “The Election Commission insisted at the meeting that an election is still the solution to the country. It’s just we have to wait for the right moment, so that the election takes place in peaceful and orderly manner, and a universally-accepted government can be formed after the election.”
The closed-door meeting called by General Chan-o-cha, was attended by Senate Speaker Surachai Liengboonlertchai, Mr Srisuthiyakorn and leaders of the UDD and PDRC.
However, while PDRC secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban and former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva attended the meeting, Mr Boonsongpaisan dispatched three caretaker ministers and a caretaker deputy minister in his place.
While no agreement was reached on how the situation should proceed an army spokesperson said the seven different parties had agreed to return to the NPOMC this afternoon to continue discussions.
Martial law has widespread support poll finds
A Suan Dusit Rajabhat University Poll of 1,264 men nation-wide between May 20-21 found that almost 76 per cent of respondents agreed with the implementation of martial law, while 47.15 per cent said it will help solve the long-runny political problem.
Foreign and Thai business associations and chambers’ of commerce have also generally welcomed the imposition of martial law, though many said the need for the law should be reviewed regularly and the army should return to their barracks at the earliest opportunity.
With the PDRC publicly vowing not to abandon its push for a suspension of democracy, an appointed prime minister and up to two years of reform prior to any election and the caretaker government insisting elections should be held as soon as possible, the two groups remain deeply polarised.
What steps the RTA will take if no agreement can be reached over the next few days remains to be seen, but at this point the majority of oppressive measures have been directed at the caretaker government, the UDD, and the Thailand media.
Feature photo John Le Fevre
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He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.
He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.
In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.
Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.
In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.
Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me
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