- - Tuesday, May 20, 2014

BANGKOK — Hours after declaring martial law early Tuesday, Thailand’s army chief asked where the elected government was hiding and denied he was plotting his second coup in eight years while simultaneously joking about further restricting the media.

Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha’s imposition of martial law is aimed at stemming chaos that has erupted after more than six months of protests that have killed 28 people, injured more than 800 and occasionally shut down businesses and streets in Bangkok, this mostly Buddhist nation’s political and commercial capital.

The Southeast Asian nation is a non-NATO ally of the U.S., which has supplied military gear and training for Thai forces for decades. The U.S. is also Thailand’s second-largest trading partner, after China, and U.S.-Thai trade has totaled more than $40 billion a year, according to U.S. Commerce Department statistics.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that “we understand the Royal Thai Army announced that this martial law declaration is not a coup.”

“We expect the army to honor its commitment to make this a temporary action to prevent violence and to not undermine democratic institutions,” Ms. Psaki said, reminding Gen. Prayuth about “the need for elections.”

Gen. Prayuth, who played a key role in a 2006 coup, activated a 100-year-old martial law a day after the country’s caretaker prime minister refused to resign, thereby resisting pressure from a group of senators calling for a new interim government with authority to conduct political reforms.


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Under the Martial Law of 1914, the military can imprison anyone without charges for seven days, use military courts for civilian criminal trials, seize and destroy anything that “may be useful to the enemy” and carry out unwarranted searches and seizures of communication devices.

In addition, the army can direct media coverage and ban social media criticism. Still, many Thais used Twitter and Facebook to describe the situation as a de facto coup.

Eleven of 18 coup attempts have succeeded in Thailand since the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

Meanwhile, uniformed soldiers brandishing assault rifles started patrolling city streets.

During a news conference Tuesday, Gen. Prayuth was asked whether he planned to impose a curfew.

“How about a curfew for the press?” the general said jokingly.

Asked why he did not notify the interim government before declaring martial law, Gen. Prayuth said, “Where is the government?”

Acting Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan was conspicuously absent throughout Tuesday, reportedly meeting colleagues at an undisclosed location. In a statement, he advised the military that “any actions need to follow a peaceful path, without violence, discrimination and with equality based on the rule of law.”

Before martial law, Gen. Prayuth tried to portray himself as a neutral counterweight to the confrontations in Bangkok’s streets, where anti-government demonstrators have blocked streets and occupied government buildings since November.

His opponents point to Gen. Prayuth’s actions in 2010, when a government crackdown on Red Shirt protesters resulted in more than 90 deaths, mostly pro-democracy civilians and some soldiers.

Thailand is deeply divided between the Red Shirts — mostly rural poor who support recently deposed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra — and members of its middle and upper classes who back the military and courts.

In 2010, the Red Shirts barricaded streets and blocked intersections; today their opponents, led by former lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban, are employing the same tactics.

Mr. Suthep and his followers want an appointed assembly of technocrats to lead the country and institute political reforms before elections are held. Critics at home and abroad have called such a move undemocratic.

The latest round of unrest started in November, when demonstrators took to the streets to try to oust Ms. Yingluck, sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in the 2006 coup. He has lived in self-imposed exile to avoid a two-year prison sentence for a corruption conviction.

Ms. Yingluck, who has been called her brother’s “puppet,” dissolved the lower house of parliament in December in a bid to ease the crisis and later led a weakened, caretaker government.

Earlier this month, the Constitutional Court ousted Ms. Yingluck and nine Cabinet ministers for abuse of power. But the move, which left the ruling party in charge, did little to resolve the conflict.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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