Late Monday, as protests escalated during Thailand's now six-month political crisis, the Thai military declared martial law. The army seized control over Thailand's government, security, and media institutions, which sure sounded like yet another of the military coups for which Thailand is so famous. Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha went on national television to explain why, saying that the military was working to "bring back peace and order to the beloved country of every Thai as soon as possible."
Then, in a darkly amusing twist, Prayuth insisted that move was "not a coup d'etat" — which feels one of those things that, if you have to say it, probably isn't true.
Here's a partially translated version of Prayuth's speech, courtesy of the Bangkok Times:
Martial law in Thailand is a big deal. A 1914 law allows the military to shut down newspapers, impose sweeping travel restrictions, arrest people without warrants, and basically overrule the civilian authorities on anything if it believes the survival of the nation is at stake. As Thai political scientist Vitit Muntarbhorn puts it, "this law basically confers and replaces civilian authority by military authority."
Prayuth's army has already created a new governmental authority to oversee the martial law and banned protestors from marching outside of zones designated by the military. They've taken over national television and are threatening to shut down any social media accounts or services that are "provoking violence." As all this is happening, a ticker on the army-run Channel 5 reads "the imposition of martial law is not a coup d'état."
Thailand has seen 11 successful coups since 1932 (and 7 unsuccessful attempts), and this does smell an awful lot like a 12th. But it is possible that this might not turn out to be a coup. It's one thing to temporarily invoke legal authority to temporarily suspend civilian government, as the army has already done; quite another to permanently suspend civilian government, which hasn't happened yet. An aide to Thailand's Prime Minister called it "half a coup," which, as of right now, sounds about right: civilian authority is gone, but not necessarily permanently.
This half-coup has its roots in a crisis in the civilian government. On May 7th, a Thai court ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on corruption charges. Anti-government protestors, called "yellow shirts," had been calling for her ouster since November. The "red shirt" pro-government faction didn't agree. Since Yingluck's ouster, the two sides have encamped in the capital. The military wants to shut all of this down. It remains to be seen whether democracy is the price Thais will be forced to pay for order on the military's terms.