by Surasak Tumcharoen
BANGKOK, May 19 (Xinhua) -- The continued street protests by both pro and anti-government forces that could escalate into a bloody confrontation within the week have fueled speculations that the powerful Thai military may declare martial law in the Thai capital and outlying areas to prevent the situation from turning into a civil war.
Under Thai law, the military can declare martial law without prior consultation with, or consent of, the government if it believes that the situation could critically jeopardize public peace and order in any specified area.
Former chief of the National Security Council Paradorn Pattanathabut said that military leaders might declare martial rule in the capital and neighboring provinces in order to stop streets protests from turning into a civil war.
The situation could worsen depending on the actuations of pro and anti-government demonstrators or by an unknown ''third party'' whose aim is to sow chaos and civil disturbance.
Nevertheless, martial law is practically tantamount to a military coup if it is imposed without prior approval from the government, albeit in caretaker status, according to former Dean of Thammasat University's Law Faculty Panat Tasaneeyanond.
"Martial rule could lead to a military coup at any time although the military's primary aim is to quell street violence or preclude civil war," the respected academic said.
He said that although the military may not overthrow the government or abrogate the constitution during martial rule, they could practically remain in power for an indefinite period of time "and there'll be no telling when they might get back to the barracks and return democratic rule to the country.''
There are fears that Bangkok could be placed under martial rule possibly within the week since the chronic political conflict has intensified in the streets in the heart of the capital and in its western outskirts.
While the anti-government protesters have occupied the long stretches of Rajdamnern Avenue and Government House, denying traffic in several streets throughout the area, the pro-government demonstrators have gathered in Axa Road, barely 20 km from where the anti-government protesters are.
Leaders of the pro-government Red Shirt demonstrators, who have insisted that the current caretaker government could legally run the country until a post-election government has been set up, have vowed to move into the heart of the capital and could possibly engage in a tense standoff with the anti-government protesters.
The anti-government protesters have insisted that the caretaker government headed by Acting Deputy Premier Nivatthamrong Boonsongpaisal has no legal basis to run the country and should be immediately replaced by a non-elected prime minister.
The pro-government protest leaders have announced that they will fight against all undemocratic, unlawful efforts to oust the elected government and will maintain and uphold democratic rule.
"If the military seizes power under the pretext of martial law and no matter which side they might take, we would certainly rise up and fight for democracy,'' said Red Shirt leader Chatuporn Prompand to a cheering crowd.
Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who had instructed military units to stay on alert and keep abreast with latest developments, has declined to categorically say on whether or not he would declare martial law to stop possible violence from happening in any part of the city.
"Do you really want the military to come out and do it? If we come out, we might not get back to the barracks for nothing,'' Gen. Prayuth told reporters several weeks earlier without elaborating.
The army chief, scheduled to retire at the end of September, looked frustrated and upset in the wake of renewed street violence in Rajdamnern Avenue area last week after three anti-government protesters were killed and dozens of others seriously injured by rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire by unknown assailants.
Deputy army spokesman Col Vinthai Suvaree recently made a statement to warn all opposing sides of society to refrain from triggering any untoward incident otherwise, he said, the military would be legally obliged to ''take action to ultimately put an end to it.''
Observers here said that the dire consequences of martial rule could be a repeat of the bloody crackdown by the army in 2010 against the Red Shirt protesters in Rajdamnern and Rajprasong areas in which nearly 100 people were killed and an estimated 2, 000 others injured.
Military leaders have admitted that they may have made a grave mistake in ordering the army crackdown and they hated to repeat it.
But the situation has remained risky and vulnerable as anti- government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban and several former legislators of the Democrat Party have blatantly pressed all government personnel not only to refuse to take orders from the caretaker government but to report to him from Monday.
Regardless of the existing laws, the former deputy premier has alleged that the caretaker government has no legal basis to run the country and proclaimed himself as ''sovereign'' ruler to whom all high-level government officials have been simply told to obey.
Suthep also blatantly told his followers to take into custody the members of the caretaker Cabinet, mostly attached to the ruling Pheu Thai (for Thais) Party, and force them to resign despite their lack of legal authority to do so in the first place.
In spite of rebellion and riot charges earlier lodged against him,Suthep has stepped up his street protests with impunity although the number of his anti-government demonstrators have dwindled but his armed security guards have increased over the last several months.
The Arintharat police unit, trained to counter urban terrorism, has already prepared to storm the hideout of the anti-government leader and put him under custody "whenever the opportunity arises, " according to Department of Special Investigation chief Tharit Pengdit.