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Thai Junta Warns Of Risks Of Lifting Martial Law

Thai Junta Warns Of Risks Of Lifting Martial Law


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The American Embassy on Wednesday (October 4) pressured Thailand's military junta to lift martial law within 10 days, but coup leader Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin warned of problems "if martial law is lifted too soon."

China cheerfully congratulated the coup leaders on Wednesday (October 4), in stark contrast to the diplomatic criticism expressed by Washington toward Bangkok.

Thailand's junta is already limping from a U.S. suspension of 24 million dollars in military aid, plus international condemnation, after the Sept. 19 bloodless coup toppled prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's harsh, monopolistic, government.

"We are trusting the Thais to hold to their promise that they would lift martial law in a week to 10 days," a U.S. Embassy official said in a brief interview on Wednesday (October 4).

The embassy official asked not to be identified, and declined to describe what action Washington might take against Bangkok -- a "major non-NATO ally" -- if martial law was not lifted in the next 10 days.

"The issue has to wait," said coup leader Gen. Sonthi, swiftly reacting to the U.S. Embassy's mention of a 10-day deadline, which also appeared in local media on Wednesday (Oct. 4).

"I have to be in charge of security. If martial law is lifted too soon, there could be problems," Gen. Sonthi told reporters on Wednesday (Oct. 4).

The junta, now calling itself the Council for National Security (CNS), earlier appeared to downplay Washington's criticism of the coup, amid hopes in Bangkok that relations will quietly improve.

China, which enjoys friendly ties with Thailand and the neighboring Southeast Asian nations of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma, sent an upbeat note on Wednesday (Oct. 4) to Bangkok.

Signed by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, the note congratulated retired Gen. Surayud Chulanont on his appointment as interim prime minister, and expressed optimism that the two prime ministers would be able to work together, according to Thai media.

The military junta appointed Gen. Surayud as an interim prime minister on Sunday (October 1), after creating a new temporary constitution.

That interim constitution, Thailand's 17th charter, granted amnesty to the junta led by Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Sonthi, and to their collaborators, while ensuring the coup leaders' domination for the next one year.

Mr. Thaksin, self-exiled in London, wrote to his Thai Rak Thai ("Thais Love Thais") party resigning as their leader, after they won three nationwide elections.

"I have decided I must sacrifice by resigning as party leader from now on," said Mr. Thaksin's letter, dated Monday (October 2). He did not mention future plans.

The coup leaders presented their assault as an idealistic, altruistic attempt to improve Thailand's democracy by smashing it, so they can reconstruct a better constitution and government from the rubble.

Their smooth as silk coup was endorsed by King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The coup produced a surprising mix of guns and roses on Bangkok's gritty streets when residents gave flowers to soldiers on tanks, while thanking them for booting out Mr. Thaksin who is despised in the capital for alleged corruption and a slew of heavy-handed policies.

The junta muzzled the media, so Thais now receive announcements, speeches, analysis and news mostly praising the coup, and telling people to obediently wait for elections in October 2007.

The junta blocked several Web sites which tried to debate the coup.

But the Nation newspaper's popular online "public forum" continued on Wednesday (October 4) to display outspoken dissent.

The Nation has been stridently anti-Thaksin, and pro-coup, and on Wednesday (October 4) its editor, Tulsathit Taptim, blasted U.S. and other foreign editorials for not understanding why the military needed to seize power.

On its Web site, www.nationmultimedia.com, many people agreed with that line but several people were allowed to post anti-coup messages.

"The power was not returned to the people. It was taken by force -- Coup d'etat -- from the people," wrote a person named Kempeitai on the Nation's Web site.

"I fully agree with you, democracy is dead now!" wrote Martyn.

"It is almost as though the ruling 'Elite' feel that they have some God-given right to take away the rights of the ordinary Thai person, and hand them back when they think fit!" Martyn said.

"People friendly with the coup-stagers are promoted everywhere," another person commented.

"Strange isn't it. Thaksin doing it is cronyism, and the Junta doing the same thing is democracy. Maybe they will have to overthrow themselves."

The junta also allowed a handful of protesters to set fire to a copy of the new interim constitution outside the army's headquarters on Monday (October 2), and permitted publication of the act in Thai media.

"The military tore apart the constitution drafted by the people, so we are burning the charter issued undemocratically by them," said a representative of the Students Activities Information Resource group.

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

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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