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Thai Coup Came Off With Nary a Hitch

The general who led the takeover promises a new charter and gives a date next year for elections.

September 21, 2006|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

BANGKOK, Thailand — As government overthrows go, the coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra this week came off about as peacefully as could be expected.

Not a shot was fired. There were no protests, no mass arrests. Thailand's beloved king gave his blessing to the takeover. And even those who did not agree with the Tuesday night coup expressed relief Wednesday that no blood had been shed.

Throughout this capital, residents emerged for their first taste of military rule, and smiled.

"We welcome them!" said Thanayuth Duang-Yuth, a 50-year-old street vendor, as he hugged his wife and three daughters on the street outside Government House. "They are our liberators!"

Women offered pink and yellow roses to many of the hundreds of young soldiers who patrolled the streets in their green khaki uniforms.

Outside Government House, the official residence of the deposed Thaksin, curious onlookers such as Thanayuth clamored at the gates to take photos.

At one point, a soldier allowed three young women into the Government House compound. Then he took their picture as they posed, beaming in front of a hulking military tank that seemed out of place amid the frivolity.

And the news Wednesday from coup leaders apparently was aimed at easing any lingering fears. Army commander Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin promised to hold free elections by October 2007 and said Thailand would have a new, interim constitution within weeks.

That pledge was good enough for Weerapong Intarapanich.

"I'm taking pictures because I want to remember this day forever," said the 36-year-old engineer as he poked his nose through the bars outside Government House. "We got rid of a corrupt prime minister, Thai-style: no blood, nobody hurt or killed."

The coup, Thailand's first in 15 years, quickly turned into an impromptu national holiday. Sondhi, who led the insurrection that ousted Thaksin while the prime minister was attending the U.N. General Assembly in New York, gave government workers the day off, and much of the nation followed suit.

This teeming metropolitan region of 10 million residents, where traffic usually chokes the main arteries day and night, was eerily quiet. Many offices stayed closed. Taxis had to hustle for fares. "I haven't seen it this slow since the Thai New Year," said one driver. "Where are the cars?"

Even the new international airport was slow. Many aircraft arrived in Bangkok with seats to spare. An official waved one arriving foreigner past a kiosk, saying there was no need for a visa. "Not today," he said. "Thailand is celebrating."

Still, embassies were taking no chances on the potential for violence: U.S. officials urged Americans to reconsider travel to Thailand. Britain told its citizens here to stay inside. Australia advised its own to exercise "extreme caution" in the Thai capital, where the military moved in about midnight, closing television stations, announcing martial law and saying it was in control of the government.

The Bush administration has denounced the coup, calling it "a step backward for democracy." Officials hinted Wednesday that U.S. aid, military cooperation and improved trade relations might be in jeopardy. But they did not demand that the ousted Thaksin be returned to power.

Amnesty International also expressed concern that Thailand's political landscape remained unstable. "The constitution has been rescinded, political gatherings have been banned, impositions announced on Internet reporting and politicians detained," the London-based group said in a statement.

But those foreigners already here were scratching their heads over the worry.

"I heard about the coup this morning when I woke up," said Jay Brooker, a 23-year-old British traveler walking in Khao San, a neighborhood popular with backpackers and foreign youths.

"My friends back in North London were e-mailing me to see if I was all right. I told them that I was just fine. Other than the soldiers, the place hasn't changed one bit."

Fellow British resident Laura Prendergast said she felt a lot better Wednesday, after some tense moments as the coup was being executed. The 22-year-old backpacker arrived in Bangkok late Tuesday night from New Zealand.

She scoured Khao San for a room and was told there weren't any. "People said, 'There's a coup going on.' It was really quiet, and I was scared, like it was the calm before the storm. But I feel a lot better today."

At his news conference Wednesday, the 59-year-old Sondhi said coup leaders were searching for a new prime minister, who would immediately select a new Cabinet.

Sondhi said he would serve as prime minister in the interim and would lift martial law within days.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 78, issued a statement endorsing the coup. In the past, the monarch has used his prestige to pressure opposing parties to compromise during political unrest.

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