Thailand’s powerful military is clearly growing concerned about the rising tide of political violence in Bangkok, with Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha warning in an official statement that the carnage has to stop.
"I want to warn every group -- especially those who use violence and war weapons against innocent civilians -- to stop now because if the violence continues the military may be needed to come out... to restore peace and order," Prayuth said.
Opposition protest leaders have been playing a calculated game since efforts began six months ago to drive the elected Pheu Thai government from power, seeking as a backstop to provoke military intervention if other methods fail. The military has been the real power in the country since a 1932 coup ended the absolute monarchy but now protects the legitimacy of the throne.
However, the military has been extremely reluctant to intervene, partly because army leaders are said to be split among themselves and partly because of the opprobrium it has suffered since it violently suppressed a rally of rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2010, taking at least 90 lives, most of them civilians. Today, according to analysts in Bangkok, it would only step in extremely unwillingly.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, the leader of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, would like nothing better than to have the military behind his organization, which has proposed since November that an unelected prime minister run the government after the Pheu Thai forces are driven from power.
Suthep in recent days has sought to boost his image from that of mere spokesman for the opposition while at the same time seeking to portray the elected government as one without legal standing. While the opposition has charged that the Thaksin forces are corrupt, the real aim is to protect the Bangkok establishment and royalty against the rural poor, increasingly empowered by social programs put in place starting when Thaksin took power in 2001.
Undeniably as Thaksin entrenched himself in power in the early part of the decade, he grew increasingly autocratic, to the point where there were growing concerns over his authoritarianism and corruption.
Suthep is playing a dangerous game, with the leaders of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, the red-shirted UDD, massing outside the city in outrage over the court-delivered ouster of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, and seven cabinet members last week.
"If the situation escalates to the point that unrest breaks out, for the sake of public order, the army may be required to deploy armed forces to resolve the situation," the Royal Thai Army said in a live broadcast on army-owned TV Channel 5. "At that stage, if any individual or any group of individuals, or any armed group responds to the army [with violence] or continues to harm innocent people, those individuals will be subject to extreme measures of suppression under the laws by the security forces, in which the wrongdoers will not be able to seek any compensation."
However, Khaosod news which translated the statement into English, reported "some observers believe the statement refers to a possible invocation of martial law. Under Thai laws, commanders of the armed forces are authorized to unilaterally impose martial law in the event of unrest or foreign invasion."
During the past six months of protests, attacks on both sides by grenades, gunfire and stabbings, have killed at least 27 people in Bangkok's political confrontation, and injured hundreds of others. The military's announcement indicated the army does not know who attacked supporters among the anti-government rally.
"The public should condemn all sides who employ violence and use military-grade weapons on innocent citizens, and the public should send information or clues to the army," to identify the attackers, the statement said. "If the situation continues to be marked with violence, it will be necessary for the military to launch a full-scale effort to end the violence, in order to maintain order [and safety] for the lives and property of the people," it said.
The army’s announcement didn’t slow down Suthep, who led supporters to attempt to break into an Air Force base where interim Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan, a Thaksin business ally and former commerce minister was meeting with Election Commission officials to attempt to schedule a fresh poll, possibly on July 20. Air Force security personnel were unable or unwilling to stop Suthep at the base, so the election officials cancelled the disrupted meeting and the prime minister exited.
Suthep, who is currently dodging an arrest warrant for alleged multiple murders linked to his role alongside the military in 2010 when they crushed the nine-week Red Shirt protest, has continued to up the ante in his attempt to drive the Thaksin political machine not only from power but from Thailand as well. He is being given celebrity status by allies in the Senate who share his aims despite his alternate status as a fugitive from justice. He continues to argue that the Senate has the right to name a new prime minister in the wake of Yingluck’s ouster.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist reporting news from Asia since 1978.