By Todd Pitman
BANGKOK (AP) – The question to Thailand’s army chief was a basic one. After he declared martial law this week, would he be consulting the government? His response encapsulated the increasingly surreal nature of this Southeast Asian country’s political crisis.
“Where is the government right now? Where are they now? I don’t know,” Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha snapped before adding awkwardly, “I’m not interfering with the government, or anybody.”
But where, actually, is the elected leadership of Thailand? Few people here believe it is still running the country.
Six months of protests have forced its severely weakened Cabinet to shift offices constantly to avoid being harassed by demonstrators. By the time the army intervened Tuesday, a government that had been in firm power in November found itself caught off guard, its leaders meeting at an undisclosed location that one aide described as “a safe house.”
As Thailand tries to make sense of a move that the army denies was a coup, one thing, at least, is certain. The nation’s caretaker government has been rendered virtually powerless even as the rest of the country largely functions normally.
“Thailand is like a car driving on cruise control right now,” said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Bangkok. “But nobody is at the wheel, and it’s probably going to crash.”
Yet the crash, if it is coming, is happening in slow motion.
Glass-encased shopping malls and ornate temples are open as always. Bangkok’s red-light districts still throb with activity. Civil servants still dutifully review passport applications and oversee driver’s license exams. And for almost all of the country, no military is in sight.
On May 21, Prayuth assumed the role of mediator by summoning the country’s key political rivals for face-to-face talks. But the meeting ended without resolution, underscoring the immense challenges the army will face in trying to broker an end to the conflict.
Thailand has been plagued by major bouts of political turmoil since 2006, when the army toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, unleashing a deeper societal schism that continues to this day.
Now, two weeks after the Constitutional Court ousted Yingluck and nine Cabinet ministers for abuse of power for transferring a senior civil servant two years earlier, the army has imposed martial law. The army intervention dealt another severe blow to what’s left of Thailand’s increasingly cornered civilian leadership, now led by acting Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan.
On May 20, Niwattumrong said, “The government will continue its job in running the country” and would work with the army to peacefully resolve the crisis, which has killed 28 people and injured more than 800.
It can do little else.
“The only thing the caretaker government has left is electoral legitimacy, the fact that it came into power by elections,” Sunai said. “But otherwise it has no power. Only the day-to-day bureaucracy is still functioning. No policy level decisions are being made.”
Despite the imposition of martial law, protesters led by former lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban say they will not give up.
Since last week, they have pressed the army, the Senate and the nation’s courts to install a “neutral” prime minister — something the government says is a threat to the nation’s democratic system and would be tantamount to a judicial coup.
There are fears that if that happens, the government’s Red Shirt supporters, who are now massing on the edge of Bangkok under the watchful eye of the army, will rise up and there will be more bloodshed. (end)