Leader of Thai coup vows elections in '07
|||Thais in Hawai'i say coup necessary|
By Denis D. Gray
By Denis D. Gray
BANGKOK, Thailand — The army chief who ousted Thailand's prime minister in a bloodless coup said today that a new, temporary constitution will be enacted within two weeks and a general election will be held in October 2007.
Army chief Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin said at a news conference that he would act as prime minister for two weeks until a new leader "who is neutral and upholds democracy" is found. The new government would not hold on to power for more than a year, he said.
In the country's first coup in 15 years, Sondhi led a rapid, well-orchestrated overthrow while Thaksin Shinawatra was in New York at the U.N. General Assembly. Not a shot was fired during the nighttime operation, which started late yesterday.
"I am the one who decided to stage the coup. No one supported me," Sondhi said, referring to Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The new regime put the country under martial law and declared a provisional authority loyal to the Thai king, ordering government offices, banks, schools and the stock market closed for the day, and seizing television and radio stations.
Sondhi said on nationwide television that the overthrow was needed "in order to resolve the conflict and bring back normalcy and harmony among people."
FROM N.Y. TO LONDON
Meanwhile, a Thai newspaper reported that Thaksin arrived in London today to reunite with his family. The report on the Web site of the English-language journal The Nation cited no source, and could not be immediately confirmed.
The Nation said Thaksin had left New York on a chartered Russian aircraft for England after canceling his speech. By 4 a.m. EDT today, Thaksin had not been seen by reporters staking out the New York hotel where he had been staying.
The Nation quoted government spokesman Surapong Suebwonglee as saying that accompanying Thaksin were Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, his personal assistant Padung Limcharoenrat and other officials. Surapong was also with Thaksin, The Nation said.
The ousted leader owns an apartment in London. His wife has fled Thailand for Singapore, The Nation said. Thaksin's plans were not immediately known. He could face prosecution for alleged corruption and other misdeeds if he returns to Thailand.
Asked whether there would be moves to confiscate Thaksin's vast assets, Sondhi said that "those who have committed wrongdoings have to be prosecuted according to the law." He did not elaborate.
MILITARY COUP IN 1991
The bloodless coup was the first overt military intervention in the Thai political scene since 1991, when Suchinda Kraprayoon, a military general, toppled a civilian government in a bloodless takeover. He was ousted in 1992 following street demonstrations.
Bangkok's normally bustling streets emptied out early today, from shopping stalls to red light districts, as Thais and tourists learned of the coup.
Across the capital, Thais who trickled out onto barren streets welcomed the surprise turn of events as a necessary climax to months of demands for Thaksin to resign amid allegations of corruption, electoral skullduggery and a worsening Muslim insurgency. Many people were surprised, but few in Bangkok seemed disappointed.
'THIS IS EXCITING'
A few dozen people raced over to the prime minister's office to take pictures of tanks surrounding the area. "This is exciting. Someone had to do this. It's the right thing," said Somboon Sukheviriya, 45, a software developer who was snapping pictures of the armored vehicles with his cell phone.
The U.S. State Department said it was uneasy about the military takeover and hopes political differences can be resolved through democratic principles. "We are monitoring the situation with concern," a statement said. "We continue to hope that the Thai people will resolve their political differences in accord with democratic principles and the rule of law."
Australia used stronger language, saying it was concerned to see democracy "destroyed."
"We deeply regret the fact that such a coup has taken place; obviously to see democracy destroyed in that way is a matter for grave concern to us," Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio by telephone from New York.
Thaksin recently alienated a segment of the military by claiming senior officers had tried to assassinate him in a failed bombing attempt. He also attempted to remove officers loyal to Sondhi from key positions.
Sondhi, who is known to be close to Thailand's revered constitutional monarch, will serve as acting prime minister, army spokesman Col. Akarat Chitroj said. Sondhi, well-regarded within the military, is a Muslim in this Buddhist-dominated nation.
Sondhi, 59, was selected last year to head the army partly because it was felt he could better deal with the Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand, where 1,700 people have been killed since 2004. Recently, Sondhi urged negotiations with the separatists in contrast to Thaksin's hard-fisted approach. Many analysts have said that with Thaksin in power, peace in the south was unlikely.
In New York, Thaksin declared a state of emergency in an audio statement via a government-owned TV station in Bangkok — a vain attempt to stave off the coup. He later canceled a scheduled address to the U.N. General Assembly.
Government spokesman Sura-pong Suebwonglee, who was with Thaksin, said the coup leaders "cannot succeed" and was confident they would fail "because democracy in Thailand has developed to some ... measure of maturity."
However, Sondhi's troops appeared to be in full control and clearly enjoyed the support of the monarch.
Former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, a member of the opposition Democrat Party, reflected an ambivalence that is likely to surface in coming days.
"As politicians, we do not support any kind of coup, but during the past five years the government of Thaksin created several conditions that forced the military to stage the coup. Thaksin has caused the crisis in the country," he told The Associated Press.
Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon-turned-politician, handily won three general elections since coming to power in 2001 and garnered great support among the rural poor for his populist policies.
But he alienated the urban middle class, intellectuals and pro-democracy activists. They began mass street demonstrations late last year, charging Thaksin with abuse of power, corruption and emasculation of the country's democratic institutions, including what was once one of Asia's freest presses.
Some of Thaksin's critics wanted to jettison his policies promoting privatization, free trade agreements and CEO-style administration.
"I don't agree with the coup, but now that they've done it, I support it because Thaksin has refused to resign from his position," said Sasiprapha Chantawong, a university student. "Allowing Thaksin to carry on will ruin the country more than this. The reputation of the country may be somewhat damaged, but it's better than letting Thaksin stay in power."
He was among hundreds of people gathered at Government House taking photos and video of themselves with the tanks.
Initially, the coup went largely unnoticed in Thailand's popular tourist districts, where foreigners packed bars and cabarets oblivious to the activity about two miles away. But word raced among street vendors hawking T-shirts who packed up their carts quickly and started heading home.
As troops secured key sites in the capital unopposed, the coup leaders declared that a Council of Administrative Reform with King Bhumibol Adulyadej as head of state had seized power in Bangkok and nearby provinces without any resistance. They did not say what reforms the council would carry out.
Early today, the coup leaders announced the appointment of the country's four regional army commanders to keep the peace and run civil administration in their respective areas outside Bangkok.