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Passersby have their photograph taken with a Thai soldier guarding a pedestrian overfly near the site where pro-government demonstrators stage a rally on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand Tuesday, May 20, 2014. Thailand's powerful military chief intervened Tuesday for the first time in the country's latest political crisis, declaring martial law and dispatching gun-mounted jeeps into the heart of the capital with a vow to resolve the deepening conflict as quickly as possible. (AP Photo/Wason Wanichakorn)Wason Wanichakorn/The Associated Press

When the armed forces of a country declare martial law on television saying, "This is not a coup," the citizens of the country might well infer a coup is exactly what has just happened .

But in the case of Thailand, the military may well be telling the truth. Politics in that country have have become topsy-turvy. Thailand has been paralyzed by fights that have spilled beyond democratic institutions, creating disorder and threatening worse. And for the time being at least, the armed forces appear to be observing neutrality between the principal factions.

The conflict goes back to the creation in 1998 of the Thais Love Thais party of cellphone tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra. His main policy was to massively subsidize the growing of rice, which gave him a strong electoral base among low-income farmers. The political and business establishment loathe Mr. Shinawatra and his surrogates, including his sister, former prime minister Yingluck. On May 7, the Constitutional Court deposed her with such haste as to suggest a lack of due process.

The protesters (often known as Yellow Shirts in contrast to the Red Shirts, who support the Shinawatras) have done their best to make governing impossible for the acting prime minister, Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan.

In the West, we might expect that large protest movements would be demanding new elections, but the Yellow Shirts have disrupted preparations for an election, too. That suggests that they have been hoping for a military coup.

But the military is so far proceeding with caution. The betting is that the generals no longer want to be servants of the urban elites. Temporary martial law will at least prevent violent clashes between the two movements. Sooner or later, there will have to be an election, in which the armed forces should protect the voters, keep order and enable a transition back to democracy.

In past decades, the King of Thailand exercised great moral authority, but he is now a frail 86-year-old, with no clear successor. Faute de mieux, the military seems to be trying to act in place of a constitutional monarchy.