Updated: May 19, 2014 05:53 PM GMT
Pedestrians take pictures at an armed position at Rachaprasong, one of Bangkok's main intersections (picture: AFP Photo/Chrisdtohe Arachambault)
Thailand's army declared martial law across the deeply divided kingdom Tuesday to restore order after months of deadly anti-government protests, deploying armed troops in the capital but insisting the move was "not a coup".
Gun-wielding soldiers, backed by a military vehicle mounted with a machine gun, were seen in the heart of the city's retail and hotel district. At least 10 television stations were taken off air, including the anti-government Blue Sky channel and the pro-government UDD station. Around 11am today soldiers took over Government House and other buildings that had been occupied by anti-government protestors.
The dismissal of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra earlier this month in a controversial court ruling has sent tensions soaring in the kingdom, which has endured years of political turmoil.
"Red Shirt" supporters of Yingluck and her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed as premier in a 2006 coup, have warned of the threat of civil war if power is handed to an unelected leader, as the opposition demands.
Thailand, Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy and a key US ally, has been without a fully functioning government since December, disrupting government spending, spooking investors and deterring foreign tourists.
The country is now staring at recession according to latest growth figures this week and Japan, whose companies have some of the biggest foreign investment in Thailand, expressed its concern at the unfolding crisis.
"We have grave concerns about the situation in Thailand," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo. "We once again strongly urge all parties concerned to act in a self-restrained manner without using violence."
The leader of a Red Shirts protest in Bangkok said soldiers had encircled them, and the government said the military was trying to convince them to disperse.
"We have been surrounded by troops on all sides," rally leader Jatuporn Prompan told AFP.
An announcement on military-run television said martial law had been invoked "to restore peace and order for people from all sides" after seven months of protests that have left 28 people dead and hundreds wounded.
"This is not a coup," it said. "The public do not need to panic but can still live their lives as normal."
Despite their assurances, concerns a military takeover was under way were fuelled by the troop presence and an order from army chief General Prayut Chan-O-Chaan that media would be censored in the interests of "national security".
The country's embattled government was not consulted in advance about the imposition of martial law, said Paradorn Pattanatabut, chief security adviser to new prime minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan.
"The caretaker government still exists with Niwattumrong as caretaker prime minister. Everything is normal except the military is responsible for all national security issues," he said.
A top aide to the premier said they were holding a "mini-cabinet meeting now in a safe house" and would make an official announcement later in the day.
On the streets of the capital, where a military crackdown on Red Shirts protests in 2010 under the previous government left dozens dead, there was confusion and fear over how the crisis will unfold.
"What a chaotic situation," said Chitra Hiranrat, 49, as she waited for a motorcycle taxi to go to work.
"I don't know what else we'll have to face in the future. Whether martial law will be helpful or not I can't say because it's only the first day. Let's wait and see," she said.
Anti-government demonstrators, who had vowed a "final battle" in coming days to topple the prime minister, said they had called off a march that had been planned for Tuesday.
"We're convinced that invoking martial law will benefit our movement and support our goal," senior protest leader Sathit Wongnongtoey said.
In a separate televised statement, the army chief announced that the government security agency overseeing the handling of the protests had been suspended.
"All army, air force and navy personnel should return to their respective units for duty," Prayut added.
Under Thailand's constitution, the military has the right to declare martial law -- which gives the armed forces control of nationwide security -- if urgently needed.
The move risks angering supporters of the government if it is seen as tantamount to a coup.
But the movement gave a cautious initial reaction to the news.
"With the declaration of martial law the government still exists and the constitutional laws still exist, so basically it is not against our anti-coup stance," senior Red Shirts leader Nattawut Saikuar told AFP.
Thailand's army previously declared martial law in September 2006 following the bloodless military coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra.
The kingdom has suffered years of political turmoil since his overthrow, which angered supporters of the billionaire tycoon-turned-populist politician.
Thailand's military has staged 18 successful or attempted coups since 1932 but government supporters have warned that they will not accept another move by the generals to seize outright power.
Anti-government protesters refuse to participate in elections without political reforms first, and say Yingluck's Puea Thai party administration lacks the legitimacy to govern.
An election held in February was annulled after demonstrators blocked voting, and new elections scheduled for July 20 look in grave doubt. AFP
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