Thai army invokes martial law to quell unrest
Thai soldiers stand guard prior to the arrival of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra at the Constitutional Court in Bangkok on May 6, 2014 - by Pornchai Kittiwongsakul
An announcement on military-run television said martial law had been invoked "to restore peace and order for people from all sides", stressing that the move "is not a coup".
"The public do not need to panic but can still live their lives as normal," it added.
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.
Her "Red Shirt" supporters have warned of the threat of civil war if power is handed to an unelected leader, as demanded by the opposition.
The country's embattled government was not consulted in advance about the imposition of martial law, said Paradorn Pattanatabut, chief security adviser to Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan.
"The caretaker government still exists with Niwuttumrong as caretaker prime minister. Everything is normal except the military is responsible for all national security issues," he said.
Anti-government demonstrators have vowed a "final battle" in the coming days to topple the prime minister.
Protest leaders now occupy a wing of the government headquarters, holding press conferences in an attempt to show the government lacks the authority to rule.
- Troops report for duty -
In a nationally televised statement, army chief General Prayut Chan-O-Cha 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," he added.
Under Thailand's constitution, the military has the right to declare martial law -- which gives the military 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, saying that it would wait to listen to a full announcement by the army chief.
"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 told AFP.
Thailand's army previously declared martial law in September 2006 following a bloodless military coup that ousted Yingluck's elder brother Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister.
The kingdom has suffered years of political turmoil since his overthrow, which angered supporters of the billionaire tycoon-turned-populist politician.
- Political deadlock -
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.
Southeast Asia's second biggest economy has been without a fully functioning government since December, disrupting government spending, spooking investors and deterring foreign tourists.
The economy shrank 0.6 percent year-on-year in the first quarter of this year, official data showed Monday -- the first such contraction since 2011.
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.
They are calling on the upper house of parliament, the Senate, to invoke a vaguely worded clause in the constitution to remove the caretaker prime minister.
The Election Commission said last week that a general election scheduled for July 20 was "no longer possible" as polls could not be held without the support of the protesters.
An election held in February was annulled after demonstrators blocked voting.
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