BANGKOK — Thousands of antigovernment protesters ignored the declaration of martial law in Thailand on Tuesday, dancing and singing in the oppressive Bangkok heat as questions intensified about the intentions of the military, which imposed the emergency decree without giving civilian officials any advance notice.
It was at least the 12th time the military has intervened in Thailand since the country converted from an absolute monarchy to a democracy eight decades ago. It was the first military intervention in Thailand’s latest political convulsions, which began six months ago and have paralyzed the government.
In the first few hours, nobody knew exactly what to make of the declaration, which gives the military broad powers to disperse and arrest protesters, censor the press, and control many government functions.
Military vehicles and armed soldiers took positions on Bangkok streets, some television stations closed, and the military issued a warning against provocative comments on social media. Yet in many neighborhoods not a soldier could be seen. Workplaces and schools remained open, people shopped, the stock market closed the day 1 percent lower, and traffic backed up as it would have on any other work day. Tourists could be seen snapping selfies with smiling soldiers.
Thousands of Thais determined to show their opposition toward the governing party assembled and marched down a broad avenue, in apparent defiance of the military decree.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, one of the foremost experts on Thai politics, said, “It’s technically martial law but it doesn’t feel like it.”
Yet the business as usual scenes on the streets of Bangkok masked what analysts described as a high-stakes intervention in Thai politics by a military that has a long and checkered past of overthrowing governments and ruling despotically.
It was done without any notification to the caretaker government, according to Chaturon Chaisang, the education minister, who questioned the military’s motives.
General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army chief, an outspoken career soldier who for months had publicly expressed reluctance to become involved in the political crisis, cast himself on Tuesday as a mediator who would summon all parties and forge an agreement.
Prayuth denied that the action was a military coup. But he was evasive about how long martial law would be in force.
“Don’t ask me how long this will last,” he said. “No one wants to implement it for too long. I want all sides to seek solution quickly.”
Prayuth faces a daunting challenge: to cajole some form of reconciliation in a society split between the old-money elites in Bangkok who are backing the antigovernment demonstrators and a populist governing party with a power base in the provinces, led by a nouveau riche tycoon, Thaksin Shinawatra.
The last military coup was in 2006, and overthrew the same political movement that dominates the country today. But analysts say the current impasse is more intractable than anything the military has taken on in the past.
Thailand, an economic powerhouse and tourist mecca of Southeast Asia, has been without a functioning government since December. And with the eyes of the world watching, the country is so gravely divided that it has lost the ability to govern itself.
“The army is taking a big risk here,” Thitinan said. “They will have to bang heads to make a compromise happen. They will be pulled in different directions. If they are seen as sliding toward one side, things could turn nasty very quickly.”