This is not how I pictured martial law.
At 3 a.m. Tuesday, two days into our vacation in Thailand, the Thai military declared martial law across the country.
According to Wednesday’s Bangkok Post, a top Army’s general said martial law would be “step one on the path to peace, which will be quickly restored.” Though one normally thinks of martial law as preceding a coup, the military has reiterated that this is not a government takeover; rather, the general is trying to convene leaders from all sides to establish a new government.
Thailand’s government has been in turmoil for months, with frequent, lengthy and sometimes violent protests erupting between vying political factions. The history is complicated, but the dispute dates to 2006, when then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by the military. Thaksin was widely popular with the rural poor, but not with the urban elite. Since then, popular elections have led to Thaksin-aligned governments (supported by red-shirted protesters). Those who oppose the populist government policies began taking to the streets in November 2013. Protests disrupted and eventually nullified an election in February 2014, and have continued in waves since.
Earlier this month, Thailand’s Constitutional Court ousted the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra (Thaksin’s sister) and nine cabinet members.
On Monday, 19 May, as we waited in a visa office in Bangkok, protesters blocked the UN building on the other side of town, commemorating a military crackdown on redshirts four years earlier, and tensions began to rise again. The next morning, martial law was declared.
From the perspective of a tourist, only one thing has changed since our lvisit last month: the appearance of a handful of military personnel in the streets. They seem to have been less busy keeping order than serving as a backdrop for numerous selfies. This morning, as we drove into the central Thai city of Phitsanulok, we slowed down for soldiers who read our car’s windshield sticker to check its registration status, then waved us on. When I asked the driver if this was related to the state of martial law, she said such registration checks were not uncommon, but were more common on holidays, when many people come into the town for shopping and tourism. The imposition seemed minor; the driver seemed totally unfazed by it.
For the Thai people, the direction of their government hangs in the balance. Thais have lived through at least 11 coups since the government peacefully transitioned from absolute monarchy to democracy in 1932. Notwithstanding the military’s stated aversion to a coup, their ability to hand power back to the government depends on the government being able to come to a solution. Parliament will need to select a Prime Minister, or perhaps, as The Wall Street Journal suggests, the military will be forced to select one for them.