The Thai military has forced 10 television channels off the air within 24 hours of its declaring martial law on Tuesday, signaling the beginning of what may be a fierce censorship campaign and, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) officials an attempt at a coup.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at HRW, said the organization is demanding the military revoke martial law and restore civilian rule.
“The enactment of nationwide martial law is effectively a coup,” he said. “It is completely at odds with the 2007 constitution of Thailand. It isolates all kinds of provisions as well as international human rights law.”
The organization is also calling for an end to a clampdown on the media, with the military censoring information that it claims is “distorted.” Print and broadcast media outlets have been ordered to not publish commentaries about the military. Outside of Bangkok, other observers said they have been ordered by regional commanders to refrain from making comments about the military.
“Freedom of expression is the first casualty of military intervention,” Sifton said. The 10 television stations forced off the air were stations from both sides of the political spectrum.
According to HRW, soldiers have appeared in newsrooms to censor any negative reports about the situation on the ground, threatening anyone who defies them with prosecution.
Thailand’s military chief announced Tuesday that the army would implement martial law, but claimed the move was not indicative of a coup. The army claims it has taken control to ensure law and order in a country that is struggling to maintain stability with its deep political divisions.
Two weeks ago, the country’s Constitutional Court ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. In the ruling, the judge claimed that the prime minister had “abused her position.” In addition to her removal, nine cabinet ministers were also removed from office.
While the army claims that implementing martial law does not have significant political consequences, government supporters have openly criticized the imposition of martial law, appearing on national television Tuesday after the announcement and insisting that the military was attempting a coup.
Thailand has experienced 11 coups since 1932 when it rid itself of its absolute monarchy. The last coup, which occurred in 2006, removed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, brother of the recently ousted prime minister.
So far, the U.S. State Department, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the European Union and Britain have not called the martial law declaration a coup. The U.S. resistance to using that term is consistent with its previous policy toward recent military takeovers in Egypt, Pakistan and Burmam, says Sifton.
“They have been unable to call this a coup. I hope it’s because they are still analyzing it and not because they don’t think it’s a coup,” Sifton said.
Under the Foreign Assistance Act, the U.S. is obliged to cut military assistance to any country's government overthrown in a coup.
Daniel Russ, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, is set to testify in front of the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Tuesday. He is expected to be asked questions about the situation in Thailand.
“Predictably they are going to dodge the questions,” Sifton said. “For decades the U.S. has claimed that it promotes democratic values with military assistance. The Thailand crisis raises serious questions about strategies of U.S. military assistance. It does not seem like we have promoted democratic values anywhere in the world.”