Bangkok: Thailand’s powerful military declared martial law in the pre-dawn hours of Tuesday after anti-government protesters declared they were moving to replace the country’s crippled government.
Troops were moving throughout the capital after the law was announced by army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha.
Troops seized the country’s main television broadcaster before 6am Bangkok time (9am AEST).
A ticker message on Channel Five read: “Army is to ensure the safety of all sides … no need to worry.” Other troops massed at key parts of city.
General Prayuth appeared on television in uniform and declared martial law had been imposed at 3am Bangkok time. He said people's movement was allowed and no curfew had been imposed.
Armed soldiers have surrounded both anti-government and pro-government camp sites. Soldiers armed with automatic weapons have also secured key intersections in Bangkok, disrupting traffic, and were seen inside government buildings.
The government was not consulted about the martial law but remained in place, a government aide said.
Deputy army spokesman Winthai Suvari also said the government was still in office.
"This martial law is just to restore peace and stability, it has nothing to do with the government. The government is still functioning as normal," he said.
General Prayuth's failure to consult the government before imposing martial law surprised analysts and some said they were not convinced a coup was not under way to remove the government. They said they would wait to hear from Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongfpaisan before reaching any conclusion.
Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist and military analyst at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University said he thought General Prayuth was trying to neutralise confrontation between anti-government protesters and pro-government groups.
Atiya Achakulwisut, contributing editor of the Bangkok Post, predicted the military's intervention in an opinion piece hours before it happened.
She wrote the intervention might settle strife for a short time "but end up generating the sort of deeper and more divisive feelings of disenfranchisement that have spread and taken root".
Anti-government protesters said they had cancelled rallies planned for Tuesday and would stay at their camp in the city. For days they have been building sand-bag protection barriers around the camp. Last week unidentified assailants had fired grenades into the camp killing three people and injuring 23 others.
Jatuporn Prompan, leader of the pro-government Red Shirt movement, said his followers would sustain their protest in western Bangkok until the restoration of "democratic principles."
Asked about the implementation of martial law, he told Reuters: "That's fine."
Later in the day, armed troops ringed the Red Shirts' camp. All exits were blocked.
Australians in Thailand
Australians and other tourists in Bangkok were not immediately affected and were not in any danger.
Australia's smartraveller.gov.au advisory has been warning Australians in Thailand to stay away from protest rallies and sites and to exercise a high degree of caution. But throughout the crisis many Australians have ignored or being unaware of the advice and were often seen among protesters.
A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said the Australian government was following the events closely and ‘‘encourage[d] all parties to resolve their political differences through peaceful, democratic processes’’.
‘‘Thailand has Australia’s goodwill and support as it tries to find ways to settle its political difficulties,’’ he said.
The department’s travel advice for Thailand has been updated to alert Australians that martial law is in place, but does not urge reconsideration of travel. Rather it recommends travellers ‘‘exercise a high degree of caution’’.
‘‘We advise Australians to avoid all demonstrations and large-scale gatherings, including surrounding areas, monitor developments that might affect their safety in Thailand and plan their travel accordingly,’’ the spokesman said.
The number of tourists visiting the country has dropped sharply since protesters took to the streets last November in a campaign to topple the government.
The army moved to impose censorship on the media, saying it "prohibits all media outlets from reporting or distribution of any news ... detrimental to national security".
It also shut down 10 satellite television stations and unlicensed community radio stations of both sides of the political conflict, including Bluesky, ASTV and Asia Update.
The order said the move was "to ensure propagated news is accurate and not distorted which may create misunderstanding and escalate conflicts":
Earlier in the day, General Prayuth asked all groups to stop political activities and enter into period where problems can be solved.
He said the army had set-up a peacekeeping command, replacing the government's Centre for the Administration of Peace and Order. He said he was in charge of the command centre, which had the authority to summon people to be interrogated or to hand over documents and evidence to authorities.
General Prayuth ordered all government agency chiefs to report to the army on Tuesday morning. It was the first direct Army order after the declaration of martial law.
The army issued a statement saying that " all provisions of any law inconsistent with Martial Law shall be suspended and replaced by provisions of Martial Law."
General Prayuth also ordered that all government agencies except the army, navy and airforce return to their offices and their normal duties.
The armed services have authority to support operations of the command centre, he said.
Troops on streets
Armed soldiers have surrounded both anti-government and pro-government camp sites, including at Bangkok's Democracy Monument where anti-government protesters have been rallying for months.
The army's move came after a meeting between the government and Senate on Monday failed to break the impasse. Prime Minister Niwattumrong refused to step down to pave the way for an interim government as demanded by establishment-appointed senators and anti-government protesters.
Observers described the meeting as "unsatisfactory".
The government, however, is likely to welcome the military's intervention as long as it stops short of a coup. Ministers insist that new elections are the only way to break a political impasse.
But anti-government protesters have been demanding the resignation of the government and appointment of an interim prime minister and administration to run the country for up to two years during a reform period.
They disrupted elections in February and have vowed to do the same again if new elections are held.
Bangkok Post’s military writer wrote on Twitter: “Everything now [is] on General Prayuth’s shoulders.”
Tensions soared in Bangkok last week as prime minister Yingkluck Shinawatra was forced from office by a controversial ruling of Constitutional Court judges. Her supporters saw the ruling as being part of a campaign by influential figures in Bangkok's royalist establishment to force her wealthy family to quit politics.
But General Prayuth has resisted calls by anti-government protesters to intervene in Thailand’s six months of crisis that has left 29 people dead, hundreds injured and dragged Thailand’s economy.
Thailand’s army has staged 18 coups or attempted coups since the 1930s.