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Military Declares Martial Law In Thailand


In a surprise move, Thailand's army declared martial law today. For six months there's been a standoff between the government and its opposition that worsened last week after the prime minister was removed from office by Thailand's constitutional court. The Thai military says this is not a coup, insisting the move is meant to prevent violent clashes between the two sides. To learn more we're joined by reporter Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. And, Michael, the army has imposed martial law. What does Bangkok look like today?

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It looks a lot like it did yesterday. I mean everything seems to be pretty normal here. There is not a large army presence in the streets at all. There is some army around the two camps of the opposition protestors and the pro-government supporters who have basically been told that they can't leave their camps for now. But other than that the city looks pretty normal.

When the army did take over, they made sure that they went to lots of the TV stations to make sure the TV stations said what they wanted them to say. And they also took off the air several TV stations that were pro-opposition. And they also took off several stations that were pro-government.

MONTAGNE: Well, Michael, this standoff has been going on for at least six months and years before that, but break down for us just briefly what the two sides are.

SULLIVAN: You've got the old school and you've got the new school, basically, Renee. You have the old power structure, the so-called royalists, the traditional elite, the feudal elite here. And then you have the new money that's represented by former prime minister Thaksan Shinawatra and his sister, recently deposed prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who eight years ago basically harnessed the power of these rural and urban poor and got them to vote for Thaksan parties basically ever since.

And even though Thaksan was removed by the military in the 2006 coup and even though the army then had the constitution rewritten so that Thanksan-friendly parties couldn't get elected again, they've won every election since and the opposition hasn't been able to win an election for 20 years now, I think. And that's what frustrates these people so much. They claim that the Thaksan family is a political cancer and they want it eradicated from Thai politics forever.

And that's what the last six months have really been about - getting rid of any vestiges whatsoever of the Thakson regime.

MONTAGNE: OK. So this opposition, made up largely or urban middle and upper class people there, are troubled by the government, in revolt, protesting. Why this step at this point by the army to declare martial law and maybe mount a coup?

SULLIVAN: I think it's because last week after the constitutional court removed Yingluck Shinawatra, then the leader of the street demonstrators, he said that there was going to be one final push this week to get rid of the democratically elected government, the caretaker government or what's left of it.

And I think the army believed, rightly, that that could - that would - turn violent and they wanted to step in before that could happen.

MONTAGNE: And so now that the army has stepped in, imposed martial law, now what?

SULLIVAN: It's a good question. I mean, in theory the caretaker government is still in power right now and the army says it's simply in charge of security. But what happens next is anybody's guess. If the army tries to install an interim prime minister and get rid of the caretaker government right now, that is not going to go over well with all the people who have voted for the democratically elected government.

And they've already come out and said today they will resist that. So it's unclear what's going to happen right now. I mean, the army's short-term plan, I think, was to forestall any immediate violence. I'm not sure they have a long-term plan.

MONTAGNE: Well, that means we'll be hearing more about this story. Michael Sullivan, speaking to us from Bangkok, Thailand. Thanks very much.

SULLIVAN: You're quite welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.