Skip to main content

Thailand: The mechanics of a state of emergency

By Peter Shadbolt, CNN
updated 3:42 AM EST, Wed January 22, 2014
Thai soldiers stand guard at an intersection in Bangkok as the government calls a state of emergency
Thai soldiers stand guard at an intersection in Bangkok as the government calls a state of emergency
  • Thailand has a long history of civil unrest, with dozens of governments since 1946
  • The state of emergency invokes the same powers that were used in the bloody crackdown of 2010
  • The 60-day clampdown gives the government wide-ranging powers to maintain public order
  • Large investors such as Toyota have said continuing unrest could damage the Thai economy

(CNN) -- Thailand is no stranger to civil unrest -- just four years ago the same emergency laws brought in this week were used to end political protests that left scores dead and thousands injured.

While this year's state of emergency may not differ in substance, it is being projected by the government of Yingluck Shinawatra as different in style.

The 60-day clampdown gives the government the power to implement curfews, censor the news media, disperse gatherings and use military force to "secure order."

Analysts say in this respect it is no different to the law that Suthep Thaugsuban -- a former deputy prime minister who is now leading anti-government protests -- used in 2010 to bring a violent end to months of protests in the capital Bangkok.

But this time, the government says it has no plans to crack down on the protesters that have disrupted the capital Bangkok for weeks.

Thailand's political unrest turns violent
Thai PM talks to CNN amid unrest
Bangkok protests hurting Thailand tourism

Labor Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung, who will oversee the joint operation between the military and the police, told a press conference this week the government would not use weapons and would not attempt to disperse protesters at night.

In 2010, the military's attempt to clear protester encampments at night was widely held to have been responsible for the high death toll of around 80 people.

The use of the police as a stabilizing force in the deadlock has been widely seen as an attempt by the government to inject a civilian element into the state of emergency. In recent weeks, the government has been praised by foreign governments, including the United States, for its restraint in handling the protests.

Despite this, human rights groups fear the state of emergency could boil over if protesters -- who aim to disrupt elections scheduled for February 2 and want to institute an unelected "people's council" to run the country ahead of a political overhaul -- ratchet up the pressure.

"This is the same piece of legislation with the same powers," Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch told CNN. "Her (Yingluck Shinawatra) powers are not limited by this."

"While she says she will not use these powers immediately, it will very much depend on the situation," he said. "If she felt that the protesters were instigating violence to stop the elections, she might use some of these powers.

"Our view is that we're concerned that this (the state of emergency) will be viewed as an escalation by the protesters, but on the other hand governments do have a responsibility to maintain some sense of law and order.

"As long as they do this in a rights-friendly way, I don't think people will complain about it. Everything will swing on what happens next."

While Thailand has said it remains open for business despite the state of emergency, the US State Department issued a travel alert for Thailand this week, warning U.S. citizens of the "unpredictable and ongoing demonstration activity" ahead of the elections.

According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand, a total of 34 countries and regions have issued travel warnings for Thailand, including China, France, Australia and Japan.

The protests have already rattled the nerves of some of Thailand's biggest investors. On Monday, the president of Toyota's Thailand unit Kyoichi Tanada told a press conference the company may reconsider up to 20 billion baht ($609 million) in investment -- and could even cut production -- if political unrest continues.

As long as they do this in a rights friendly way, I don't think people will complain about it
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch

"For new foreign investors, the political situation may force them to look for opportunity elsewhere. For those that have already invested, like Toyota, we will not go away. But whether we will invest (further) or not, we are not sure."

Thailand is the biggest auto market in Southeast Asia and is a production and export hub for car manufacturers such as Honda Motor Company and Ford.

Despite political instability, Thailand has shown formidable economic growth over the past decade and is still attracting foreign investment from small to medium-sized enterprises.

In 2010, the medium-sized design company Design World Partnership decided to remain in Bangkok despite having its office windows shot out during the crackdown.

"We have to take the long view. If you look at the view over the past five to ten years the growth in Thailand has been phenomenal," Brenton Mauriello, DWP Chief Executive Officer, told CNN.

"Of course it would be better if it wasn't there and in the short-term our business has been affected but it's not catastrophic," he said. "You don't come to a country like Thailand and invest over a three or four-month period -- it's a long-term commitment."

He said that his company was expecting the situation to resolve itself and that by April or May it would be business as usual.

"We are now starting to invest back into Australia," said Mauriello, whose company began in Australia, established itself in Thailand in 1994 and and now has nine offices and 450 staff worldwide. "I think that shows that if we can do it, anyone can."

Part of complete coverage on
Thailand coup
updated 3:21 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
The military leader who took control of Thailand in a coup in May has been named the country's prime minister.
updated 12:37 AM EDT, Mon June 16, 2014
Thailand's new military ruler has added a personal touch to the post-coup charm offensive, writing the lyrics to a pro-junta ballad.
updated 1:03 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
Pageant winner Weluree "Fai" Ditsayabut has relinquished her title under a barrage of criticism over her comments about red shirts.
updated 7:32 AM EDT, Wed June 4, 2014
They may not be led by Katniss Everdeen, but Thai protesters have adopted one of her symbols. Jessica King reports.
updated 3:29 AM EDT, Mon May 26, 2014
The general who seized control of Thailand in a coup has announced he has received royal endorsement to run the country.
updated 3:01 PM EDT, Sun May 25, 2014
Former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is no longer in military custody, according to a highly placed source in the junta.
updated 5:36 AM EDT, Sun May 25, 2014
Photos of the demonstrations against military rule in Thailand.
updated 4:03 PM EDT, Sat May 24, 2014
U.S. suspends $3.5 million in aid to Thailand after the military took charge of the country.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Fri May 23, 2014
Thailand's military declared Thursday that it has taken control of the country in a coup. What does it mean? Here's our explainer.
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Fri May 23, 2014
If you're planning on visiting the country, you should be aware of what's going on.
updated 4:55 AM EDT, Fri May 23, 2014
The U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie Kenney, reacts to the Thai military coup.
updated 8:04 AM EDT, Fri May 23, 2014
The Thai military has censored TV and radio -- and social media could be next.
updated 2:02 PM EDT, Thu May 22, 2014
Many people are going about their lives as normal -- some are even responding playfully.
One iReporter living in Bangkok says he is more worried about neighborhood snakes than the military coup.
updated 5:48 PM EDT, Thu May 22, 2014
Thailand's military chief announces coup in a televised national address.