In The News

Martial Law in Thailand Eases Some Tension, But Long-Term Solution Still Uncertain

May 21, 2014

In the early hours of May 20 in Bangkok, Thailand’s Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha declared martial law nationwide in order to restore order after seven months of street protests that have left the country without a proper functioning government. General Prayuth said martial law would remain in place “until the country is safe and there is stability.”

Thailand protests Bangkok shutdown

Thailand’s Army chief declared martial law nationwide in order to restore order after seven months of street protests that have left the country without a proper functioning government. Flickr user/Victory Dumesny http://bit.ly/1pdYypd

Many have called the announcement of martial law tantamount to a military coup. While this action has many characteristics of a military coup, two things have not happened that may distinguish the declaration of martial law from earlier coups: first, the 2007 Constitution, which declares that nation-wide martial law requires royal proclamation of which there is no evidence in yesterday’s military declaration, has not been abrogated, and second, the caretaker government—while seemingly marginalized—has not been formally displaced, although the military did not inform caretaker Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Bonsongpaisan of its action prior to the announcement.

Article 4 of the Martial Law Act of 1914 that the Thai military used to justify this intervention says there must be “war or insurrection” for martial law to be enacted. Although the situation in Thailand has been unstable, there is no war or insurrection. The military used this law more as a preemptive measure as both sides of the country’s political divide announced large protests for this weekend and the likelihood of violence breaking out was significant.

Clearly the military is reluctant to assume the reins of power as it has done 11 times in the past, the last time being in 2006 when it deposed of Thaksin Shinawatra whose influence remains large even though he has been living in self-imposed exile for several years now. The 2006 coup badly damaged Thailand’s reputation internationally. This time, the military has assumed the task of trying to broker some sort of compromise between all sides of Thailand’s political equation when all other institutions are either unable or unwilling to do so. The big “if” is whether the Thai military can succeed in its endeavor.

The Thai military probably distrusts Thaksin Shinawatra more now than it did in 2006. However, the military also appears to be losing patience with Suthep Thaungsuban, the leader of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), and his hardline demands. The PDRC is seeking a new government, but not through an election. For its part, the Pheu Thai caretaker government has been refusing to resign. So while martial law may have helped to ease tensions by preventing protests and possible violence in the short-term, it remains unclear whether the military has the leverage to broker a long-term solution to what thus far has been an intractable political stalemate.

Thailand’s political instability has taken a toll on the country’s economy. Manufacturing has contracted 7 percent over the past year, merchandise exports are down two percent, and consumer confidence is at its lowest in years. Tourism, which is the country’s largest foreign exchange earner, providing $30 billion per year, has been down over the past six months. A number of hotels in Bangkok reported only a 20 percent occupancy rate during high season beginning November 2013. While a caretaker government can authorize routine spending, it cannot put together a budget. This has serious ramifications not just for Thailand, but for Southeast Asia more broadly. Thailand has the second largest economy in Southeast Asia (after Indonesia) and is by far the largest economy on the mainland. Between now and 2020, Thailand anticipates investing $65 billion in major infrastructure projects, including four high-speed railways. At a time when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) aspires to achieve economic integration, delays in the implementation of such projects compromises this integration effort and the ability for the region to achieve connectivity through infrastructure development such as the building of rails, roads, ports, and electric grids. Thailand’s bitterly divided political leaders seem little concerned with the impact of protracted conflict on Thailand’s economy and regional economic competitiveness.

The differences between both sides in Thailand’s political divide are stark. The military’s efforts in helping to bridge this divide in the coming days and weeks will determine if Thailand can move forward or if political stability will continue to remain elusive.

John J. Brandon is director of Regional Cooperation Programs for The Asia Foundation, based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at john.brandon@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

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