Why Thailand's Martial Law Could Be A Coup In All But Name

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BANGKOK - Historically, generals have not been shy about military takeovers in Thailand, which has more than earned its reputation as "Coup Central."

There been at least 18 actual or attempted coups since 1932, when the country became a constitutional monarchy. The last one, just eight years ago, was thoroughly retro - featuring tanks on the streets and wooden generals mumbling on TV in front of a large portrait of the King - and ultimately counterproductive.

On paper at least, the army now has draconian powers of arrest, to ban protest and control the media.

But the army is insisting Tuesday's surprise intervention is not a coup.

Speaking on television at 3 a.m. local time (4 p.m. Monday ET) the army chief Prayuth Chan Ocha said the military was taking control of security right across the country, invoking century-old martial law powers. He said the army was acting as an honest broker in an increasingly bitter political conflict that has seen 30 people die in the last six months alone.

The country's beleaguered government and constitution will stay in place, at least for now. And while there were armed soldiers on the streets Tuesday - around government buildings, at TVTV stations and some intersections - they were low key. The reaction in the rival red shirts (pro-government) and yellow shirts (anti-government) protest camps was subdued.

Commentators were quick to call it a "half coup" or a "coup light."

So why so shy?

The last coup, in 2006, was a disaster. It installed an incompetent and equally as corrupt caretaker government before Thai voters promptly voted back into power a succession of governments allied with the one the army got rid of.

And in 2010, the army suppressed protests against another government it had installed (by back-room dealing, not a coup). More than 98 people died and 2,000 were injured.

Not only did those incidents badly damage the army's standing, but it also made General Prayuth determined to avoid direct involvement in politics.

As protests have become more violent, the army has kept insisting the politicians sort themselves out, even though it has in the past been more sympathetic to the yellows.

Soldiers inside the control room of the offices of the National Broadcasting Services of Thailand (NBT) in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday.EPA

The turning point may well have been a grenade attack which killed three anti-government protesters and injured 22 others. The army might also have wanted to head off big rival rallies this coming weekend, at which widespread violence was feared.

Despite their subdued response Tuesday, pro-government red shirts are suspicious of the army and have vowed to fight any coup attempt. Their immediate response has been to give Prayuth the benefit of the doubt.

But bridging the gap between the reds and yellows will be no easy task. The reds want an early election, which they would almost certainly win. Which is why the yellows sabotaged the last attempted vote, threatening to do the same next time.

The most charitable reading of the army's intervention is that the general feel they have no choice and will knock heads together and come up with an agreed set of rules for an election.

But the army does not have a good record at that, and the less charitable reading is that it becomes, well, just another coup, which makes a grim situation even worse.