Update: Mixed reaction to martial law

The declaration of martial law by the Royal Thai Army has received a cautious welcome from anti-government protesters but has taken a lot of flak from academics as the future of Thailand rests in just one pair of hands – army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Kasian Tejapira, Thammasat University political science professor, said whether this declaration would  unfold democratically would not rest solely on the actions of how Gen Prayuth, the director of the newly named Peace and Order Maintaining Command (POMC), but also on how acting caretaker Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan reacts.

The announcement at 3am Tuesday was viewed as a safety net for the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), seen as on a suicidal mission and potential political confrontation,  and also as a way of holding the red-shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) at their present site and preventing them from moving against the opposition camp, said Mr Kasian.

The military stepping in would ensure  the political elite talk and find a way out of the crisis under the shadow of the army, said Mr Kasian. He was quite concerned whether Mr Niwattumrong would readily abandon his Pheu Thai Party link or not.

“Like it or not, a scheduled election, most likely overseen by the military, will be part of the deal. There will be a push to change the acting premier for someone more congenial toward the opposition,” the respected political scientist said.

The point was whether the deal would be made under the provisions of the existing constitution, such as an acting prime minister of a caretaker government whose main job would be to prepare for a general election, or done by the suspension of some provisions of the constitution, such as having an ad-hoc government with full authority to institute 'reform',  the Thammasat University scholar said.

The second option would amount to an interim unelected government in violation of the current constitution and democratic principles.

"I'm afraid the military prefer the latter option and the caretaker government is likely to yield," said Mr Kasian.

Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch representative in Thailand, said there was nothing to justify such a  drastic measure as the military invoking the 100-year-old Martial Law Act.

“There is no fatal confrontation, only speculated circumstances. Nationwide martial law is unjustified as it is just to ensure the army can completely take over the elected civilian government,” said Mr Sunai.

He said  martial law was a serious blow to the already fragile democracy in Thailand.

"Media cannot function properly and checks and balances mechanisms are taken away in the hands of a single person. This is a scary future for Thailand," said Mr Sunai.

Jae, member of Network of Students and People for Reform of Thailand (NSPRT), cautiously welcomed martial law. She said some sort of military intervention had been anticipated for weeks.

"Many PDRC supporters believe the announcement benefits the move and the aim of the great majority of people. I myself do not agree with any coup, but my first impression of the changing situation is that at least we don't have (DSI chief) Tarit Pengdith threatening us on TV anymore," said Jae, a former social activist and now a businesswoman.

Mulan, 50, a red-shirt supporter from Min Buri, said she totally disagreed with the martial law and was irritated that soon after the announcement the army has shut down the red-shirt TV channels.

"Why does the army listen to the demands of the minority of people but not to the majority who want elections? I think they came out just to give a ladder for Suthep Thaugsuban (PDRC secretary general) to climb down," said Ms Mulan.

She asked that the caretaker prime minister not succumb to military pressure, saying the people have made enough sacrifices for democratic principles to prevail.

"There must be an election as soon as possible," Ms Mulan said.

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