Protesters want Thailand’s interim government to step down and an increased role for the monarchy. The interim government says it will do no such thing and is calling for new elections. And things are coming to a head.
Thailand’s political crisis worsened this morning, with the country’s army unilaterally declaring martial law. The army has said that the declaration of martial law was to restore peace and stability to the country after six months of, at times, violent protests.
Lieutenant Geneneral Nipat Thonglek says that while the declaration of martial law was not a military coup, the precise restrictions to be imposed by the declaration are still being worked out.
The declaration of martial law follows the dismissal by the Constitutional Court earlier this month of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and several government ministers for “abuse of power”. The subsequent caretaker government has limited powers to act, ahead of fresh elections.
Last Friday, a group of about 70 anti-government senators called for the resignation of the caretaker government and the appointment of an interim government to undertake substantial political reforms. This call closely follows the opposition “yellow shirt” calls for the appointment of a “people’s council”, rather than fresh elections.
Acting Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan and Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitisiri met with two representatives of the Senate on Monday, but failed to reach agreement as to a way forward. Niwattumrong insisted his government would not resign, but rather would go to new elections.
Given that the “yellow shorts” and opposition Democratic Party believe that will not win new elections, they have continued their protests aimed at forcing the government to step down. Pro-government protests have also been planned, raising fears of open clashes in Bangkok’s streets. It appears it is this prospect that has prompted the army’s declaration of martial law.
Underlying Thailand’s political crisis is the role of the country’s venerated monarchy. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has only intervened in times of crisis, has been increasingly inactive due to age and ill health. Since the effective end of his practical role in Thai politics, there has been a move by supporters of the royal family to increase its political presence.
This increased role for a successor monarch, or other members of the royal family, fits with proposed restrictions on full and open democratic process in Thailand, which has resulted in the political rise of Bangkok’s previously disenfranchised poor, as well as those in the north and north-east of the country. Unable to appeal to these groups, Thailand’s traditional oligarchs are now seeking an alternative political mechanism for ruling the country.
Thailand’s army has, to date, been more restrained than in the past in similar circumstances, when it has staged coups. The last coup, against former PM Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, was in 2006. In this, there appears to be divisions within the army as to how far it should again intervene in Thai politics.
With both the government and opposition so far and so vehemently apart, the type of consensus that allows democracy to work now appears dead. How martial law is now defined and whether it can quell political tensions will determine next steps. Even those in the army urging caution might find themselves deciding that civilian politics is now a broken model.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University