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Thai Military Topples Absent Premier

The bloodless coup seems to have the king's support. Thaksin, in New York to speak at U.N., has been dogged by political controversy.

September 20, 2006|Karuna Buakamsri and John M. Glionna | Special to The Times

BANGKOK, Thailand — Thai military forces launched a coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra late Tuesday, declaring martial law nationwide and seizing control of television stations as tanks and soldiers surrounded the prime minister's residence.

Retired Lt. Gen. Prapart Sakuntanak, a spokesman for the coup's organizers, addressed a stunned nation on television, saying the revolt was necessary because Thaksin's government had divided the country and corruption was rampant.

Prapart said the Thai Constitution and government had been suspended and replaced by military law. But he assured the country's 64 million residents that the seizure would be temporary and that power would be "returned to the people" soon.

Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, who is known to be close to Thailand's king and is a Muslim in this Buddhist-dominated nation, will be acting prime minister, an army spokesman, Col. Akara Chitroj, told the Associated Press.

In a nationally televised speech today, Sondhi stood alongside four other somber military men in uniform and told the Thai people, "We are in control."

He said Thaksin's actions in recent months "to make personal profit" from his office were "unacceptable" and had negatively affected the king's image, considered a high crime in Thailand.

Sondhi added that the coup leaders had "no intention to run the country by ourselves and will return power under the constitutional monarchy to the people as soon as possible."

The beleaguered prime minister, who has faced repeated calls to step down amid allegations of corruption, electoral manipulation and poor handling of a Muslim rebellion, was in New York at the United Nations when the bloodless coup occurred. He canceled a planned address to the General Assembly and was reportedly making plans to leave New York.

A government spokesman with Thaksin said Tuesday that the coup could not succeed and assured a reporter that "we're in control."

"We hope that the situation should return to normal soon because [Thaksin] is constitutionally and legally elected prime minister and this is an elected government. If there's going to be any change, it has to be through the democratic means," Thai Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai said in an interview with CNN.

Meanwhile, Thaksin phoned a Thai television station from New York to make a statement. "I declare Bangkok under a severe state of emergency," he said. Moments later, the transmission was cut while Thaksin was still speaking.

U.S. officials said President Bush, who is also at the United Nations, was monitoring the situation and had expressed concern over events.

The officials said they were awaiting word from the Thai delegation as to who was in control in Bangkok.

The coup unfolded without a shot, as soldiers and tanks surrounded the royal palace, the prime minister's office and other central government buildings.

The normally hectic capital seemed in a state of suspended animation early today.

Streets emptied as military trucks with loudspeakers ordered residents into their homes. As a light rain fell, hundreds of onlookers gathered outside Government House, the prime minister's official residence. Many cheered as a leader of the revolt passed in a limousine.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has reigned for 60 years, appeared on Thai television with Sondhi in an earlier broadcast today in what was considered a show of the monarch's unquestioned support for the government's overthrow.

"The king's appearance on TV is seen as his stamp of approval for the coup," said Neil Englehart, a political scientist at Ohio's Bowling Green State University and an expert on Thai politics. "You've got the highest-ranking officer in the military and the king appearing together. That's a pretty convincing message."

The military also had seized control of all of Thailand's television and radio stations, cutting news broadcasts of the coup.

Shortly after midnight, the stations aired a statement by a coup leader, ordering people to stay in their homes and assuring them "that the army and police are in control of the situation."

The Thai currency, the baht, fell 1.3%, its biggest one-day decline since 2002, and Thai-focused stock funds also took a hit, as traders reacted to the news of Tuesday's military takeover. Thai military leaders declared a stock market holiday today.

There were no signs the global economy would suffer a replay of July 1997, when the collapse of the baht sparked a round of currency and stock-market meltdowns across Asia that impoverished millions and toppled governments.

"This is a political phenomenon," said William Overholt, director of the Center for Asia Pacific Policy at the Rand Corp. "There is no destabilizing financial situation anywhere in the region."

In recent months, political controversy has dogged Thaksin, a billionaire businessman and former police officer who has led Thailand for more than five years.

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