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Ehrlich: Thailand's Coup Junta's First Moves

Thailand's Coup Junta's First Moves


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The six highest-ranking, U.S.-trained, military and police officers in this Southeast Asian nation presented themselves on Wednesday (September 20) as Thailand's new self-appointed coup leaders, warning people not to destabilize their junta, and promising to install a civilian interim prime minister within two weeks, so elections could be staged in one year.

They censored the media -- including blackouts of CNN and BBC satellite TV news broadcasts -- and banned public political gatherings.

Security forces reportedly arrested a handful of anti-coup demonstrators who unfurled a banner on Wednesday (September 20) which said: "Fasting in Protest Against the Destroyer of Democracy," but released them within hours, according to Thai media. They could suffer six months in jail and a 260 U.S. dollar fine.

Students calling themselves the "News Center for Student Activities" urged people not to cooperate with the "military junta" and to wear black to mourn the death of democracy, the Nation newspaper said.

Thailand remained calm.

The coup's leader, Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, 59, declared Wednesday (September 20) a government holiday, shutting banks, the stock market, universities and other institutions apparently to consolidate their grip.

Many Thais remained glued to regime-controlled TV, radio, or independent satellite broadcasts and Web sites, hoping to discover the mood of their revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

His blessing or indifference to the coup will have immense sway among Thailand's 65 million impassioned loyalists of the frail constitutional monarch.

"In order to create peace in the country, the king appoints Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin as head of the council of administrative reform," a statement read on TV said.

"All people should remain peaceful, and civil servants should listen to orders from Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin from now on."

The monarch, 78, has not publicly spoken directly to the Thai people.

"We have two weeks. After two weeks, we will step out," Gen. Sonthi told a news conference on Wednesday (September 20), indicating a deal may have been struck with some of Thailand's top figures.

"Prime Minister [Thaksin Shinawatra] has caused an unprecedented rift in society," Gen. Sonthi said.

Gen. Sonthi and his five other tough, dour-faced men in uniform, hailed themselves as an Administrative Reform Council (ARC) and maneuvered to install a civilian face as interim prime minister -- possibly Bank of Thailand Governor Pridayadhorn Devakula.

He is the son of one of Thailand's many princes in the royals' extensive family tree, which bestows a special respectability in a land where royal descendants are usually considered among society's elite.

Many frightened officials and their relatives linked to the toppled, elected government flew out of Thailand on Tuesday (September 19) as the coup began, to escape possible punishment.

Mr. Pridayadhorn, however, flew into Bangkok on Wednesday (September 20) from Singapore, cutting short his attendance at an International Monetary Fund and World Bank meeting.

He appeared at Bangkok's airport smiling and greeting coup leaders who whisked him into consultations.

Sketchy comments by the junta and their supporters indicated they were trying to project an ambiance of business as usual, uninterested in immediately confronting the ousted billionaire prime minister over alleged corruption.

"There has not been any freeze of assets, because they have not been deemed criminals," Mr. Pridayadhorn told reporters when asked if the junta would seize Mr. Thaksin's wealth.

The slick, secretive, CEO-style Mr. Thaksin's problems began when he did not pay any income tax after his family sold its Shin Corp. telecommunications empire to Singapore's Temasek Holdings in February for 1.9 billion U.S. dollars.

During the past several months, peaceful anti-Thaksin demonstrations occasionally paralyzed Bangkok's streets amid complaints that the prime minister was dodging tax obligations, though the deal was done offshore amid claims by Mr. Thaksin that it was legal.

Despite the grim shredding of the constitution, and trashing Thailand's elected government, this vital Southeast Asian military ally of the United States experienced the overnight, bloodless coup with relative ease.

Several tanks, armored personnel carriers, and clusters of heavily armed, steel-helmeted troops guarded the prime minister's office, the royal palace, and key main roads, but in some cases displayed polite, coy behavior when Thais and foreigners came to gawk and marvel.

Some of the glistening, green, spotless tanks were gently cordoned off with white ropes as if in a showroom, despite being parked on Bangkok's gritty streets.

"I saw about four soldiers when I was at a 7-11 shop, and I pulled out a camera and they all hid behind a telephone box [booth]," a British photojournalist said. "They were very well behaved."

The military junta hopes supporters of Mr. Thaksin will not plot a counter-coup.

Stung by the coup's swiftness and embarrassed that it occurred while he was in New York -- forcing him to cancel his speech at the United Nations -- Mr. Thaksin reportedly planned to hunker in London with his wife and daughter and brood over his fate.

The whereabouts of his other young, wealthy, adult daughter and son remained unclear after the coup, Thailand's first in 15 years and its eighteenth coup, or coup attempt, since 1932.

London's foreign office confirmed to the BBC that Mr. Thaksin would arrive on Wednesday (September 20) "on a private basis".

Mr. Thaksin was not expected to immediately return home, possibly fearing he might be seized at Bangkok's international airport, though ARC leader Gen. Sonthi assured diplomats that Mr. Thaksin could come back because he had not been charged with any crime.

The coup leaders earlier, however, issued a televised justification of their action which cited "widespread reported corruption" as a reason to ignore Mr. Thaksin's three previous landslide election victories and use their weapons to take his seat.

Hoping to stem international criticism, Gen. Sonthi insisted to diplomats that Thailand was still a democracy and tourists were welcome to continue visiting this tropical country.

Thailand offers beaches, island resorts, hillside retreats, inexpensive quality accommodation, exotic cultural delights and delicious cuisine. Many foreign travelers quickly shrugged off any worries after discovering the coup was peaceful.

Gen. Sonthi is an ethnic Thai Muslim whose promotion last year to commander-in-chief in this Buddhist-majority country was billed as a plus, because he was tasked with ending an escalating Islamist insurgency in the south, led by separatist minority ethnic Malays.

The battle to control southern Thailand has killed more than 1,400 people on all sides since 2004.

Gen. Sonthi's five ARC colleagues include Supreme Commander Gen. Ruangroj Mahasaranon, Navy Commander-in-Chief Adm. Sathiraphan Keyanon, Air Force Commander-in-Chief ACM Chalit Pookpasuk, Police Commissioner-General Police Lt. Gen. Kowit Wattana, and National Security Council secretary-general Gen. Winai Phatthiyakul.

They outlawed price escalation and hoarding of food and other essential items, apparently to stem exploitation and panic buying.

The U.S. Embassy told Americans on Wednesday (September 20) there was no need to leave Thailand because troops who staged the coup were not violent.

*************

Copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich, who has reported news from Asia for the past 28 years, and is co-author of the non-fiction book of investigative journalism, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

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