Thailand's decision to lift martial law across much of the kingdom may ease international pressure, but raises the possibility that the junta will face bolder protests against them, analysts say.
In the first significant easing of restrictions since the September 19 coup, Defence Minister Boonrawd Somtas said on Tuesday that martial law would end in 41 of the 76 Thai provinces, mainly in the centre of the country.
"The partial lifting is a compromise measure by the government to help ease both international and domestic pressure," said Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a political science professor at Bangkok's Thammasat University.
However, it will remain across much of the rural north, the powerbase of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, as well as in provinces in the far south where a separatist insurgency rages.
"It will help ease the pressure on one level but not all," warned Somjai. "I believe international pressure will continue, while domestic discontent will turn into demonstrations."
The junta has until now defied pressure from the United States and the European Union, both harsh critics of the coup and restrictions on civil liberties imposed a day after the bloodless putsch.
But in an indication that frostiness towards the junta-backed government may be thawing, army-installed premier Surayud Chulanont this month received a warm handshake from US president George W Bush at a regional summit.
Chulalongkorn University's political science professor Prayad Hongthongkam said that pressure from abroad was not a driving force behind the government's decision to partially lift martial law.
"There was no country directly requesting Thailand lift martial law during the international visits by the Thai prime minister or during the APEC meeting," he said, referring to the meeting of Pacific Rim leaders in Vietnam.
"Of course, lifting will bring more protests but they believe they can control the situation," he added.
Boonrawd told reporters Tuesday that the government had decided to lift martial law in areas where they though the security situation "was not serious".
"The lifting is to improve our international image and to help tourism. We are confident that we can control the situation," he said.
Until now, the junta had cited vague threats of anti-coup "undercurrents" in the north as a reason for maintaining strict control in the kingdom.
The military still fears that Thaksin, who was twice elected into office, could try to return to Thailand and that his supporters in the north and northwest would rally to oppose the coup.
But the Campaign for Popular Democracy, a pressure group which staged months-long street protests against Thaksin earlier this year, warned the junta that it is not only supporters of the former premier who are dissatisfied.
"There will be more political movements from the poor to demand the government's help to solve their problems after the martial law is (partially) lifted," spokesman Suriyasai Katasila said in a statement.
"So far, the government has yet to endorse policy or set up any mechanism to solve poverty," he added.
The statement went on to caution the junta against trying to use force to stamp out any protest.
"If any measures are being prepared to deal with the movements, they could turn into more serious actions against the government and the junta," it said.
Although the government and junta chief General Sonthi Boonyaratklin have agreed to partially lift martial law, Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej still has to sign off on the cabinet decision, a formality that normally takes a few days.
Analysts and diplomats have suggested martial law could be eased before the king's 79th birthday on December 5.
"It will probably take effect a day before His Majesty the King's birthday so they can claim loyally to the king," said Prayad.
"And if anyone staged any trouble, it will be reason for them to bring back martial law."