Bangkok, Thailand - The Thai military’s declaration of martial law in the early hours of Tuesday morning took many by surprise - including the embattled government.
Ministers were not informed of the army chief’s decision beforehand, said Sean Boonpracong, a national security adviser and leading figure in the pro-government Red Shirt movement.
"It was kind of expected, but when it actually happened it took us by surprise," he told Al Jazeera, adding that he was not optimistic about the military’s intentions amid fears that this could be first step in a full-scale military coup.
"I think there’s a chance that a coup could be in place. We would know in about 24 hours," he said on Tuesday afternoon. "The army has to prove to us that it will stop at martial law."
The move came amid an increasingly bitter conflict between the Pheu Thai government and its hardline royalist opponents, which has at times spilled over into violence. Twenty-eight people have been killed and more than 700 injured in the current unrest, with gun and grenade attacks by shadowy assailants raising fears of street clashes between rival groups and even civil war.
A former deputy prime minister from the opposition Democrat Party, Suthep Thaugsuban, has for the past six months been leading street protests aimed at bringing down the government, which was elected in a 2011 election deemed largely free and fair by observers.
Following a meeting with senior civil servants on Tuesday afternoon, army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, who heads the new Peace and Order Maintaining Command, said he would not allow further bloodshed and could not say for how long martial law would remain in place.
Bangkok remains calm
The mood in Bangkok was calm, with most schools and businesses open as usual. Troops were deployed at key intersections and some office workers stopped to take photos with them. Some residents welcomed the move.
"If it stops the fighting it’s a good thing," Kamonwan Puansrimuang, a 35-year-old teacher, said.
Others were more cautious. "I'm not sure about the reason behind this martial law and don't know how it will make things better," said 23-year-old office worker Chanantorn Fai. "I don't think that it will bring real peace anyway. I can't make any sense of what’s happening."
She was not alone. "Nobody really knows how to read this one," said David Streckfuss, an independent analyst based in the northern city of Khon Kaen, a government stronghold. "There is no justification for it. It’s hard to make any sense of it."
He added: "This is worrying but the Red Shirts don’t seem to be reacting as strongly as you might think, because the government is still in power. But if somehow the caretaker government was removed, that’s when things would kick off in a big way."
Under Thailand’s Martial Law Act of 1914, military commanders have wide-ranging powers to suppress unrest, including powers to detain people, censor the media, impose curfews and prohibit public gatherings. It was not clear at the time of this report how these powers would be enacted, although a number of television stations had been taken off the air and Prayuth had ordered the censorship of the media in the interests of "national security", in a signed statement delivered on every television station.
'Prelude to a coup'
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at the University of Kyoto’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, said he saw the imposition of martial law as "a prelude to a coup" and an attempt to further weaken the government. Earlier this month, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was dismissed by a controversial court ruling over the removal of a government official. The government’s supporters say the courts are heavily politicised and stacked with political opponents.
Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra was removed by the military in a 2006 coup and now lives in exile in Dubai to avoid a jail term for abuse of power. Her opponents had been calling for Yingluck to leave office and for an end to the "Thaksin regime", which they claim is corrupt and illegitimate.
The protesters are drawn from Bangkok’s middle class and wealthy elite, and from opposition strongholds in the south of the country, while the government commands strong support in rural areas in the north and northeast.
Its Red-Shirt supporters say the traditional royalist elite and the urban middle classes, frustrated by their inability to win elections, are trying to undermine and get rid of the government by any other means.
The military’s latest move prompted concern from human rights groups. "While there has been sporadic violence in recent months, nationwide martial law was not necessary to prevent further violence," said Brad Adams, director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch. "The military has pulled a 100-year-old law off the shelf that makes the civilian administration subordinate to the military, effectively rendering the executive, legislative and judicial branches powerless.
"The broad powers conferred on the military mean that there are no legal safeguards against rights violations and no remedies for any damage caused by the army. Censorship and shutting down of both anti-government and pro-government satellite TV channels and radio networks raises serious concerns that freedom of expression will be the first victim of de facto coup. Thailand's friends in the world's capitals should make it clear that they expect this de facto coup to be reversed immediately."