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TV Stations Silenced, Schools Shut After Thai Army Coup

By Chris Blake and Anuchit Nguyen
May 23, 2014 2:08 AM EDT 268 Comments
Thai army soldiers secure the grounds of the venue for peace talks between pro and anti-government groups on May 22, 2014 in Bangkok.
Photographer: Rufus Cox/Getty Images
Thai army soldiers secure the grounds of the venue for peace talks between pro and anti-government groups on May 22, 2014 in Bangkok.

Schools were shut and international television channels were off air as stations broadcast military logos and periodic army statements, a day after Thailand’s military seized control following a six-month political stalemate that has sapped economic growth.

Traffic was light in Bangkok after the army ordered schools and universities closed until May 25. Army Chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who announced the coup on national television yesterday, imposed a nationwide curfew from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. and banned political protests.

The coup, the nation’s 12th in eight decades, could provide short-term certainty to markets after months of street protests and upheaval that led to the removal on May 7 of caretaker Premier Yingluck Shinawatra by the Constitutional Court, with the baht rising today and stocks paring an early fall.

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The military’s intervention though may not resolve the deep polarization that has taken hold in Thailand over the past decade between the largely rural-based supporters of Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup, and his royalist opponents.

“The military has been looking at what went wrong in 2006 and asking why didn’t the 2006 coup work,” said Michael Connors, an associate professor at the Malaysia campus of the University of Nottingham. “The answer won’t be time, it will be that they were too soft.”

The coup took place after military and political leaders met yesterday to discuss a way out of the governance crisis.

‘No Choice’

Thailand’s Troubled Democracy

“At the coffee break, Prayuth asked all participants whether they reached any resolution,” said acting Senate speaker Surachai Liengboonlertchai, who attended the meeting and was not detained. “All of them said no. He then asked the government ministers whether they will quit and the answer was no. So Prayuth said he had no choice but to seize power.”

The military used trucks to block the entrance and exits of the complex where the meeting was held. The leader of the anti-government protesters, Suthep Thaugsuban, was escorted into an army compound nearby.

“To restore peace back to the country in a short time and to reform the country’s politics, economy and society, the Thai military, army, navy, air force and police have seized power from May 22 onward,” Prayuth said in his TV address. “All people should remain calm and live their lives as normal.”

The caretaker government was removed, said army deputy spokesman Winthai Suvaree. The Senate, independent agencies and courts will remain in place, he said.

Leaders Arrested

Yingluck reported today to the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council after she was summoned alongside others including former premier Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law. Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, who replaced Yingluck as caretaker prime minister earlier this month, also reported in. The permanent secretary of each ministry will be the acting minister for now, the council said.

Leaders of the pro-government movement known as Red Shirts have been arrested, Sean Boonpracong, an adviser in the prime minister’s office, said by phone. They include Jatuporn Prompan, Weng Tojirakarn, Tida Tawornseth and Korkaew Pikulthong, with Niwattumrongin a safe location, he said.

“The military tried to avoid taking over and it’s quite obvious with their attempts to try to speak with all sides,” Kiat Sittheeamorn, a senior member of the main opposition Democrat party, said by phone. “When the situation as they anticipated worsened, they had to do something.”

The baht rose 0.2 percent against the U.S. dollar to 32.546 as of 12:43 p.m. in Bangkok. The benchmark SET Index (SET) fell 1.5 percent to 1,384.46, the most since May 8, after earlier falling as much as 2.1 percent. Stocks linked to the Thaksin family declined, with SC Asset Corp. Pcl down 5.1 percent.

Airports Open

The council banned 155 people from leaving the country, army deputy spokesman Winthai said in a statement on television, without giving names. Thai airports will operate as normal, Airports of Thailand said in a statement. The Hong Kong Travel Industry Council said it would cancel all tours to Thailand until May 30.

Thailand’s central command said social media operators should prevent messages that incited violence or broke the law, or they could be charged.

The U.S. denounced the military’s action and said it’s reviewing military and other assistance to Thailand.

“This act will have negative implications for the U.S.- Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.

Singapore’s government said it had “grave concern” about developments in Thailand. Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said in a statement the coup was “regrettable.”

‘Big Mess’

Thailand’s military has carried out a dozen coups since the end of direct rule by kings in 1932, with three governments overthrown since 2006 by the army or judicial action. The latest putsch may extend almost a decade of unrest that has sapped growth in Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy.

“The military will not want to have responsibility for the country for long, a year or perhaps a year and half,” said Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. Still, “it will be under pressure to see that thorough-going reform has been completed before it steps down. And it is unclear that that can happen quickly. So the military is in a bind, a bind that will grow worse if it needs to act repressively to curb resistance to its rule.”

Anti-government protesters are demanding an unelected council run the country to wipe out the influence of Thaksin and his sister Yingluck, whose parties have won the last five elections. Government supporters, also protesting in Bangkok, have vowed to fight any such move.

Not Promising

Yingluck dissolved parliament and called fresh elections in December in a bid to end the protests, which began in opposition to an amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return to Thailand. Thaksin fled abroad to avoid a jail term for corruption handed down by a military-appointed court.

The coup came days after the state planning agency reported gross domestic product shrank 0.6 percent in the three months through March from a year earlier, as production and tourism took a hit during months of unrest. The agency this week also cut its growth forecast for this year to 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent from a range of 3 percent to 4 percent earlier.

Prayuth has not spelled out his plans other than seeking to restore peace quickly.

“The best case scenario we could see is an interim government, a new constitution drafting process leading to earlier rather than later elections and the return of the mandate to the people,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “There has been no sign of that yet,” he said on Bloomberg Television.

“This is a long road. We didn’t expect this so I think we have to be looking at some worst case scenarios for Thailand and that’s not very promising.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Chris Blake in Bangkok at cblake28@bloomberg.net; Anuchit Nguyen in Bangkok at anguyen@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at rmathieson3@bloomberg.net Tony Jordan

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