Day 2 of martial law in Thailand stirs confusion

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 20, 2014 at 10:17 pm •  Published: May 20, 2014

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand began its second day under martial law Wednesday with little visible military presence on the streets of Bangkok as residents tried to make sense of the dramatic turn of events after six months of anti-government protests and political turmoil.

A flurry of meetings were planned behind closed doors among senior government officials, opposition party leaders, the Election Commission and others a day after the country's powerful army chief invoked the military's expanded powers and issued more than a dozen edicts that included broad powers of censorship over the media, the Internet and vaguely defined threats to prosecute opponents.

The army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha provided little clarity or a path forward during a press conference Tuesday amid speculation both at home and abroad that the declaration of martial law was a prelude to a military coup.

Prayuth, who is known to be gruff with the media, deflected questions about the likelihood of a coup with flippant answers that added to the confusion. Asked if a coup was taking shape, he replied: "That's a question that no one is going to answer."

Asked if the army was keeping in contact with the government, he answered: "Where is the government right now? Where are they now? I don't know."

Among the dozen or measures announced Tuesday, the military said it was banning demonstrators from marching outside their protest sites and banning any broadcast or publication that could "incite unrest." Fourteen politically affiliated satellite and cable TV stations were also asked to stop broadcasting.

But around Bangkok, there was little sign of any change, and most soldiers that had occupied key intersections around the capital had withdrawn. People went about their work normally, students went to school, and the traffic was snarled as it would be any other day in this bustling city.

"After 24 hours of martial law, I have not spotted a single soldier," said Buntham Lertpatraporn, a 50-year-old vendor of Thai-style doughnuts in the capital's central business district along Silom Road. "I've only seen soldiers on TV."

"My life has not changed at all," he said. "But in my mind I feel a little frightened, because I don't know how it will end."

In Washington, the top American diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, called for the early restitution of democracy and free and fair elections after the military intervened after months of violent political unrest.

But Human Rights Watch criticized the Obama administration for failing to call for the immediate reversal of martial law, saying that would be the quickest path to restore democracy. The group issued a statement that called the army's move and its broad restrictions "effectively a coup that threatens the human rights of all Thais."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon echoed calls from across the international community, urging Thailand to respect democratic principles and for all sides in the tense conflict to "exercise utmost restraint (and) refrain from any violence."

Thailand, an economic hub for Southeast Asia whose turquoise waters and idyllic beaches are a world tourist destination, has been gripped by off-and-on political turmoil since 2006, when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled by a military coup after being accused of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for Thailand's king.