Walking a tightrope

Walking a tightrope

The military’s declaration of martial law was not a complete surprise, but its ripple effect cannot be underestimated. Army commander Prayuth Chan-ocha had made it clear last week that the military had run out of patience with the violence spurred by six solid months of political rallies. Martial law was raised as an option.

The military has stated repeatedly that it did not want to stage a coup d’etat and has shown restraint. It has stressed that the declaration of martial law "is not a coup". We hope, and urge, that the military does not take this step. A total army takeover of government risks escalation of the very violence that Gen Prayuth says he is determined to prevent. A coup is not the solution.

At present the constitution remains the supreme law, and the caretaker government remains in place. But by declaring martial law, the military has prompted opposition. Questions have been raised as to whether the army has acted illegally, by failing to obtain a Royal Proclamation for nationwide martial law. Many oppose military intervention completely. Veteran human rights campaigner Sunai Phasuk told a TV talk show bluntly that "martial law is not justified and unnecessary".

It seems Gen Prayuth considered martial law to be the least worst method to ease building tensions among the duelling political groups. However, the two main rallies have been 25 kilometres apart for 10 days, showing no intention of confrontation. So the true motives of this military decision are unclear.

The early hours of martial law showed an intent by the army to treat everyone fairly and without bias. It shut down radio and TV broadcasts and internet sites of all of the most strident, ill-intentioned political groups. The main rallies were permitted to continue at their chosen venues, but only within those designated areas. There will be no street marches.

The Royal Thai Army, for better or worse, has been a factor in the country's politics ever since the 1932 revolution. Even on the sidelines for the past five months, the public, government and colour-coded rally leaders all considered and consulted the army's opinion. Now the army has taken steps it cannot undo. It is walking a tightrope.

One must hope for the best in such a situation. The army must not only act with restraint but with complete political impartiality. Any sign that the army is biased towards a single political party or viewpoint will almost certainly ignite violence from the other side of the political divide.

Gen Prayuth now has the muscle, as well as the prestige, to gather any or all parties necessary for settlement. He can talk sense to them and they must listen. While this is only a first step, it must be assumed that the military establishment has ideas to present on what steps the country can take to emerge from this mess.

One thing is clear. There is no acceptable road to the future except for negotiations that lead to an election which will be nationally respected. The need for political reform has universal agreement. Agreement on what steps to take to achieve reform can be part of the final agreement.

If the army can give the country a solution that will both wind up the interminable rallies and get the country back on a united course, everyone will forgive a short period of martial law. But the military, as proved so many times in our coup-ridden past, can quickly outlive its welcome. Gen Prayuth must proceed with speed and focus on the target — a political solution which everyone agrees to abide by.

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