BANGKOK, Thailand – Thailand’s military seized power Thursday in a bloodless coup, dissolving the government, suspending the constitution and dispersing groups of protesters from both sides of the country’s political divide who had gathered in Bangkok and raised fears of a violent showdown.
The powerful army chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, announced the military takeover in a statement broadcast on national television. It was followed by additional announcements including a nationwide curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. and an order for top government officials _ including the ousted prime minister _ to report immediately to the country’s new governing military commission.
There was no immediate sign of soldiers patrolling central Bangkok, but troops dispersed the two protest sites where competing groups were camped out _ one backing the ousted government and one that had struggled for six months to unseat it. There were no signs of resistance or reports of violence.
Long lines formed at the city’s elevated train and subway stations as panicked office workers tried to rush home before the curfew.
Flanked by the heads of the armed forces, Prayuth said the coup was launched “to quickly bring the situation back to normal, to let the people have love and unity as in the past, and to reform the political and economic systems _ and to grant equality to every side.”
An army spokesman later announced that it had dissolved the caretaker government and suspended the constitution but that the Senate would remain in place.
The pivotal developments came after Prayuth had declared martial law on Tuesday in what he called a bid to resolve the crisis and a day later summoned the country’s rival political leaders for face-to-face talks. After two days of talks, the meeting failed to break the impasse.
Shortly before the announcement was made, armed soldiers in military vehicles surrounded the military facility where the politicians were meeting, apparently to block those inside from leaving.
Many of the country’s highest-profile figures were summoned for the meeting. They included the acting prime minister _ who sent four Cabinet ministers in his place _ and anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, as well as Suthep’s rival from the pro-government Red Shirt group, Jatuporn Prompan. Reporters at the meeting said Suthep and Jatuporn were escorted out of the meeting by soldiers.
A government official, Paradorn Pattanathabutr, contacted shortly after the announcement said that the four ministers attending the meeting were still being held by the military.
“The rest of us who are outside are still fine and in the safe places. However, the situation is very worrying. We have to monitor it closely and don’t know what else can happen,” he said.
Thailand has been gripped by bouts of political instability for more than seven years.
The latest round of unrest started in November, when demonstrators took to the streets to try to force Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down. They accused her of being a proxy for her popular billionaire brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and now lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a jail sentence on a corruption conviction.
The coup announced Thursday was the 12th since the country’s absolute monarchy ended in 1932. The military was widely viewed as sympathetic to the protesters seeking to oust the current government.
“We ask the public not to panic and to carry on their lives normally,” Prayuth said. “And civil servants stay in every ministry, carry on your responsibilities as normal.”
The army chief said that the military would “provide protection” for foreigners in Thailand.
Prayuth invoked the military’s expanded powers Tuesday and issued more than a dozen edicts that included broad powers of censorship over the media, the Internet and vaguely defined threats to prosecute opponents.
The military had insisted it was not seizing power, but said it was acting to prevent violence and restore stability in the deeply divided country. But he provided little clarity on a path forward, amid speculation both at home and abroad that the declaration of martial law was a prelude to a military coup.