Thailand's military has declared martial law, saying it did so to keep "peace and order" after months of sometimes violent anti-government protests, the army chief said.
In a televised announcement early Tuesday, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha defended the move as necessary to resolve the country's political crisis.
As soldiers took up positions in key parts of Bangkok, the military denied it was staging a coup and urged rival political groups to come together and talk.
In a declaration broadcast on national television, Prayuth said the army acted over concerns that the security situation is deteriorating and to prevent violence between pro- and anti-government supporters.
“The Royal Thai Army intends to bring back peace and order to the beloved country of every Thai as soon as possible,” Prayuth said.
“We therefore ask every side and every group to stop their movement, in order to quickly enter the process and sustainably solve the country’s problem. The provisions of the Martial Law Act 1914 will be announced. We are asking the general public not to panic and still carry on their duties and work normally,” he added.
Prayuth met later Tuesday with senior officials from several government agencies. He called for talks between rival parties, but vowed martial law would remain in place until law and order is restored.
The army denies it is taking over. Several officials strongly denied a coup had taken place.
Mark Thompson, director of Southeast Asia research at City University of Hong Kong, told VOA that the military is reluctant to label its actions as a coup because it fears this could stoke further unrest.
“It is semantics, but it's an important point, because the last time the military stepped in in 2006, it didn't work. And the military is afraid that if they call it a coup and actually remove the caretaker government officially, not de facto like they are doing now, that will provoke the Red Shirts and could lead the country closer to civil war."
Interim government in charge
Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitisiri told reporters the interim government is still in charge and insists the army's move only relates to security. However, members of the caretaker government say they were not consulted before the decision to implement the martial law.
In a statement, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. is "very concerned" and is monitoring the situation. She said the U.S. expects the Thai army to honor its commitment to make the martial law a "temporary action to prevent violence, and to not undermine democratic institutions."
Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist from Chulalongkorn University, said the military may be hoping to stabilize a volatile and deadlocked political climate, amid fears of violence.
"The potential violence that is looming is quite large,” Panitan said.
“These groups of people are ready to confront each other with arms. The military wants to stabilize that. But it's not going to be easy,” he said. “But of course, I think the military is determined to do that. If they are successful, then secondly you may buy time and open any space for negotiation. The question is where and what negotiation should resume?"
Bangkok has endured six months of anti-government protests pressing the government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down. A recent constitutional court found Yingluck and nine cabinet members guilty of abuse of power, which led to their resignation.
The military said the new caretaker government of Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan remains in place. The army chief urged both sides of the political divide to come together and discuss a solution.
Boonsongpaisan on Tuesday called for fresh polls to be held on August 3 in a bid to end the nation's political turmoil, according to the French news agency AFP.
He told reporters that the government had written to the Thai Election Commission proposing the new date for polls and hoped to "submit a royal decree" next week for the king to endorse a new national vote.
While the Thai army largely stayed out of the political deadlock over recent months, some pro-government leaders, such as senior party member Smarn Leertwongrath, see the military as sympathetic to the demands of former lawmaker Suthep Thangsuban's anti-government protesters.
"I believe that the commander in chief of the army is on the side of Khun Suthep. Probably they want to tell the Thai people they want everyone into a situation that the political (climate) can be calm for just a while,” Smarn said.
Since 1932, Thailand has faced 18 coups or coup attempts. The last, in 2006, saw the overthrow of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was accused of abuse of power.
Thailand's latest descent into political conflict began in October following more than two years of relative calm under former Prime Minister Yingluck and her Pheu Thai Party.
But street protests erupted over a proposed amnesty bill that opened the way for the return of Thaksin, who fled Thailand in 2008 to avoid a jail term for corruption. Nearly 30 people have died and hundreds have been injured in violence related to the protests since November.
Under the martial law declared Tuesday, the army says both pro- and anti-government protesters must remain in their designated demonstration sites.
Anti-government demonstrators, who forced the annulment of elections in February and had vowed a "final battle" in coming days to topple the prime minister, called off a march that had been planned for Tuesday, AFP reported.
In a televised statement, the army also warned against spreading news that can "negatively affect security." Troops were positioned at TV stations where broadcasts were suspended under sweeping censorship orders, although regular Thais appeared largely unfazed, according to AFP reports.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the declaration of martial law Tuesday marks a step back in Thailand's political process.
"This is very scary and that's why so drastic actions like martial law there needs to be convincing evidence that the survival of the nation is at risk or there is out of control public disturbance - something similar to full scale riots or civil war,” said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. “But we don't see that. The reasons given by the Army chief are all speculative."
Sunai said the army’s apparent tactic of pressuring conflicting parties to seek a way forward may lead to greater damage for Thailand.
Analysts said the Army hopes to avoid a repetition of bloodshed in 2010, when clashes with Red Shirt protesters left over 90 people dead in the worst bloody violence since 1992.