BANGKOK — Thailand’s military Thursday carried out the country’s 12th coup in 82 years, arresting government and protest leaders in a move the army chief said would end six months of turmoil and deadly protests.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, flanked by uniformed security officers, said on state television that the military “needs to seize control of the situation in the country.” The constitution that was written after the last coup, in 2006, was being discarded, he said.
The coup accomplished in a few minutes what anti-government protesters backed by the nation’s traditional elite and staunch royalists had failed to achieve on the street: the overthrow of a democratically elected government they had accused of corruption.
Soldiers broke up the main camps of rival protest groups and imposed a nationwide 10 p.m. curfew that sent people in Bangkok, the capital, streaming home aboard the city’s crammed public-transit systems. As the curfew hour struck, armored personnel carriers were seen blocking some key arteries in the city.
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Many in the nation of 67 million greeted the coup stoically, stocking up on provisions before heading home. All national broadcasting was suspended and replaced with the commission’s announcements and patriotic music. BBC, CNN and other international TV news networks were blocked.
The bloodless takeover marked the second time in eight years that the army has removed from power the Pheu Thai party, which is linked to Thaksin Shinawatra, the controversial telecommunications tycoon and former prime minister who was ousted in 2006 and who lives in exile.
At the heart of the upheaval is the longstanding struggle between the rural masses in the north, who support the Shinawatra family and Thaksin Shinawatra, and the elites, who say his populist movement puts too much power in the hands of people they describe as less educated.
Many describe Thaksin’s political movement as the most successful in the country’s history. He gained the allegiance of voters in the provinces by implementing universal health care, microloans and a more efficient bureaucracy before his 2006 ouster.
He now lives overseas, though many critics have complained of what they see as his undue influence on the government of his younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who became prime minister in a landslide vote in 2011 and was removed by the Constitutional Court this month for alleged abuse of power.
Tension between the two camps has risen in the past six months, with dueling and occasionally violent street protests that resulted in at least 28 deaths.
With the rival camps believed to be headed toward a major confrontation, the army Tuesday said it was imposing martial law, but it denied it was staging a coup. Military authorities opened talks between government officials and protest leaders at the Army Club in Bangkok.
After barely 48 hours, however, Prayuth reappeared on television to declare that the military takeover was complete. Military leaders offered no immediate timetable for restoring civilian rule.
One government official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name, described the talks — which lasted a mere four hours over the two days — as chaotic and fruitless.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said there was “no justification” for the coup and urged the military — a U.S. ally dating to the Vietnam War — to restore democracy immediately. U.S. law prohibits direct assistance to countries after a military coup, and Kerry said the U.S. was reviewing its annual aid package for Thailand, which includes $12 million for military and civilian programs.
Human-rights groups sharply criticized the military takeover and questioned why the talks weren’t given more time. Critics said the army had taken the side of anti-government protesters, who have been hoping for military intervention to forestall elections scheduled for the summer, which the Pheu Thai party was expected to win.
“The anti-government protesters knew they can’t compete in the game of democratic politics,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former Thai diplomat who is a professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Japan’s Kyoto University. “They have been successful in creating a situation of un-governability, where the military had to step in.”
In 2010, Prayuth launched a crackdown against the Pheu Thai-aligned “Red Shirt” movement that left more than 80 people dead. The movement’s calls for democratic reforms have led to accusations that it is anti-monarchist, a dangerous charge in Thailand, where severe laws prohibit any criticism of the long-ruling king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86.
Prayuth said Thursday that the military would “protect and worship the monarchy.”
The anti-government “Yellow Shirt” movement had vowed to dislodge the Pheu Thai government by the end of the month, but Yingluck Shinawatra’s successor, acting Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, refused to step down. He did not attend Thursday’s negotiations and was believed to be under house arrest.
Although Thailand has been burdened with tumultuous politics for decades, it also has been, by many measures, an economic success story and a well-functioning society. Most of the population has running water and electricity. The unemployment rate is about 1 percent. And U.S. and Japanese automotive factories together export more than a million cars a year from the country. Thailand is also one of the world’s largest producers of computer hard drives, and its idyllic white-sand beaches and elephant-filled jungles draw millions of tourists a year.
But troubles could be brewing. “We’re likely to see dark days ahead,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
“We can expect some opposition and resistance to the military-inspired government, and we would have a repeat of protests like in the recent past, but probably a lot worse,” he added.
“The stakes are a lot higher. There are a lot more grievances on both sides. Seizing power like this is counterproductive and will lead to a lot of problems for the military. I’m not sure they are prepared for it. It’s a great underestimation on their part of what they are up against.”
Material from The New York Times and The Associated Press is included in this report.