Coup in Thailand


Military seizes power in Thailand
By Seth Mydans and Thomas Fuller International Herald Tribune

Published: September 19, 2006

BANGKOK In Thailand's first military coup in 15 years, a faction of the armed forces seized control of the capital on Tuesday night, suspended the Constitution and declared martial law, effective immediately.

The moves came while Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was in New York preparing to address the United Nations.

Late on a rainy night, tanks and armored personnel carriers blocked the entrance to the prime minister's office. Other tanks took up positions at government offices and major intersections. Witnesses reported that roadblocks had been set up around Bangkok.

On a military controlled television station, a general in civilian clothes said a "council of administrative reform" including the military and the police had seized power in the name of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The general said the military did not intend to rule the country and would "hand power back to the people," but he gave no timetable.

The television announcements were made in the name of the army's commander in chief, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who has publicly feuded with the prime minister.

The spokesman accused Thaksin of corruption, lèse-majesté and constant interference with the legislature and the courts. He apologized to the public for any inconvenience caused by the coup.

The announcement came shortly after Thaksin, in a television broadcast from New York, declared a state of emergency and fired Sonthi.

But that broadcast was cut off before it was completed and Sonthi revoked the state of emergency. Soon after that he announced his own declaration of martial law.

The military's move came at the height of a political crisis in which Thaksin had been forced to step aside in April by huge street demonstrations.

In an effort to reassert control, he called a snap election in April, which was boycotted by the opposition and which he won in a landslide. A court then annulled the result.

An election commission loyal to Thaksin set a new vote for Oct. 15 but its members were removed and jailed by a court for malfeasance and a new commission has said that election would be delayed. That delay was seen as a setback for Thaksin.

Thaksin is one of the most popular - and unpopular - prime ministers in recent Thai history. The different points of view point to a sharp social divide that he has played on during the crisis.

Thaksin's party, Thai Rak Thai, has won three elections by landslides, in 2001, 2005 and again in April because of broad support among rural voters who have been the targets of his populist policies. He was widely expected to win any new election.

But opposition to him has swelled among the elite, mostly in Bangkok. Public indignation was heightened by his family's tax-free sale of its $1.9 billion stake in a giant telecommunications company to a Singapore company.

Tuesday's televised announcement came after reports of large-scale military movements around the capital. The military has been sharply divided between officers loyal to the prime minister - some of them his relatives - and those who oppose him.

There has been tension over an impending military shuffle that would determine which officers were moved into commanding positions.

Meanwhile, the military spokesman, General Prapas Sakultanak, laid out the rationale for the military's move.

"The government's performance destroyed harmony in society," he said. "Everyone tried to win over each other and the situation continued to worsen. Most people don't trust the government because there are many signs of corruption."

He said the prime minister had hobbled independent bodies created by the 1997 Constitution to provide checks and balances. A leading demand of the prime minister's opponents is the writing of a new Constitution that would temper executive power.

Prapas said that, in the name of Sonthi, he had ordered all troops to report to their units. "Do not make any move without orders from the Party for the Reform of Governance under the Democratic System through the Constitutional Monarchy," he told the troops.

In a later announcement the spokesman said that the 1997 Constitution "has been terminated," along with both houses of Parliament, the cabinet and the Constitutional Court.

U.S. urges peaceful solution

The White House on Tuesday urged a peaceful and democratic resolution to the political situation in Thailand, where the military has attempted a coup, Reuters reported from New York.

Frederick Jones, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said: "We have seen various reports of military movements as well as a reported declaration of a statement of emergency in Bangkok by Prime Minister Thaksin. We are monitoring developments closely but the situation at the moment is unclear.

"We look to the Thai people to resolve their political differences in a peaceful manner and in accord with the principles of democracy and rule of law."

At the United Nations, Thailand's government spokesman said Tuesday that the coup could not succeed.

"We have known about the situation since this morning New York time," Surapong Suebwonglee said. "We think at this moment no one can accept the coup attempt because democracy in Thailand has developed to some maturity."

Thaksin's speech to the UN General Assembly was brought forward to Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. after the coup got under way. He had been due to speak Wednesday afternoon.

The American ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, said Washington was aware of reports of a coup attempt "and for now, the important thing is to look for the sustaining of the constitution process."

But he said that more information was needed and that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was contacting Ralph Boyce, the U.S. ambassador in Thailand.

"But the importance of adhering to constitutional principles is important," Bolton added.