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Army declares martial law in Thailand; government wasn't informed, aide says

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Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra
By Kocha Olarn, Ben Brumfield and Catherine E. Shoichet

BANGKOK, Thailand (CNN) -- The Thai army declared martial law throughout the country Tuesday in a surprise move that an aide to the embattled Prime Minister said the government didn't know about beforehand.

"They took this action unilaterally. The government is having a special meeting regarding this. We have to watch and see if the army chief honors his declaration of impartiality," the aide said, describing the situation as "half a coup d'etat."

Lt. Gen. Nipat Thonglek told CNN the move was not a coup.

"The army aims to maintain peace, order and public safety for all groups and all parties," a ticker running on the army's television channel said.

"People are urged not to panic, and can carry on their business as usual."

The army says it wants to bring peace to a country riven with division that has spilled into the streets and resulting in deaths, injuries and political instability.

Two weeks ago, the country's Constitutional Court removed caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from government, after protests peaked.

The people of Thailand are all too familiar with coup d'etats. There have been at least 18 actual and attempted military takeovers since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

Guarding the media

Martial law went into effect at 3 a.m. Tuesday, a television ticker said.

The military is guarding all Thai TV stations, Thai public television announced, showing pictures of soldiers and armored vehicles taking positions outside broadcast facilities in the country's capital.

In a statement read on Thai television, the military declared that all of the country's radio and television stations must suspend their normal programs "when it is needed."

The dramatic announcements come days after the head of the army issued a stern warning after political violence had surged in the country's capital.

The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok alerted American citizens in the country to the invoking of martial law in a statement Tuesday. It warned them to pay attention to media coverage of Thailand and avoid protests and public gatherings, saying that even peaceful events can turn violent.

Command and control

The military has established a security task force called the Peace Keeping Command Center, which is headed by army Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha and operates from the Thai Army Club in Bangkok.

The task force has ordered officials to appear before it. Local and international journalists formed a crowd outside the building waiting for Prayuth to speak.

At a news conference, the general said he wanted "all political parties" to start a dialogue aimed at ending the political crisis in Thailand, saying the military "won't allow any bloodshed."

"We cannot keep having" conflict, Prayuth said.

He apologized for banning some TV broadcasts, justifying the measure for reasons of national security. He would not say when martial law would end but indicated he did not foresee it lasting for three to six months.

Concern about democracy

A human rights activist as well as a divisive political icon, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, have criticized the army's bold actions.

It's a departure from democracy, said Human Rights Watch Thailand's Sunai Phasuk.

"With the enforcement of martial law, the army is one step closer to taking over power completely from civilian administration," he said. "There is no check and balance; there is no safeguards against rights violations."

Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon who was driven out of the country in a coup in 2006, showed more guarded concern in comments posted to his Twitter account.

"Declaring martial law is something already expected for those who have been following the situation in Thailand lately. However, I hope that there would be no parties violating human rights and sabotaging democratic process any further. It would just worsen the image of Thailand for the eyes of international communities," the posts read.

Much of the tension between protesters in Thailand, who have clashed violently in recent years, center on him. There are those who vehemently oppose him and those who want him back in power.

The ousted caretaker Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is Thaksin's younger sister.

Military tightrope walk

It's too soon to tell whether the military's declaration of martial law will ease tensions or heighten them, analysts said.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor, described the situation as "very volatile."

"This is a precarious time now for the army," he said. "They have to be even-handed."

If the military appears to be favoring one side, he said, violence could escalate rather than cool down.

"If it's seen as favoring one side or the other side, then we could see more violence and turmoil against the military," he said.

Paul Quaglia, director at Bangkok-based risk assessment firm PQA Associates, described the situation as "martial law light."

"Right now the military has deployed troops around key intersections of the city. Traffic is a real mess here at the moment, but there's no violence," he said. "I think what the military is trying to do with this ... is to convince protesters to go home. They're trying to dial down the tensions here as well as preempt several large rallies and strikes that were scheduled for later this week."

Going forward

But what happens next will depend on how protesters react, he said.

"The military is taking a step-by-step, gentle approach to see if they can get things to improve," Quaglia said. "If not, they'll of course have to ratchet up their actions."

Nipat, the lieutenant general, said the precise restrictions of martial law were being worked out.

The government's "red shirt" support base, many of whom hail from the country's rural north and northeast, view Yingluck's ouster as a "judicial coup" and have been protesting what they consider an unfair bias by many of the country's institutions against their side.

Anti-government protesters are seeking a new government -- but not through elections, which the opposition Democrat Party has boycotted, arguing the alleged corruption of their political rivals makes widespread reform necessary before any meaningful vote can be held.

Increased government efforts to improve security are a positive step, Quaglia said.

"That being said, martial law will not solve the political problems that continue to haunt this country," he said. "The differences are stark, and I don't think the military can step in and by force fix the political issues."

CNN's Kocha Olarn reported from Bangkok. CNN's Ben Brumfield and Catherine E. Shoichet reported from Atlanta. CNN's John Vause, Saima Mohsin and Tim Hume contributed to this report.

The-CNN-Wire

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