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Thailand military ousts prime minister

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Sept. 19, 2006, 2:03PM
Thailand's military ousts prime minister

By GRANT PECK Associated Press Writer
2006 The Associated Press

BANGKOK, Thailand Thailand's army commander ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a military coup Tuesday night while he was in New York, circling his offices with tanks, declaring martial law and revoking the constitution. A military spokesman said army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin would be acting prime minister.

Sondhi, a Muslim in this Buddhist-dominated country, is known to be close to Thailand's revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

An announcement on national television signed by army Sondhi Boonyaratkalin ordered all troops to report to their duty stations.

A senior army general, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said the armed forces chiefs were meeting with the king to discuss forming an interim government, suggesting it would probably be led by civilians.

As soldiers and armored vehicles moved through a drizzly Bangkok, an announcement from the military had earlier declared a provisional authority loyal to the king.

It declared that a "Council of Administrative Reform" had seized power in Bangkok and nearby provinces without any resistance. It recognized the king as head of state.

"The armed forces commander and the national police commander have successfully taken over Bangkok and the surrounding area in order to maintain peace and order. There has been no struggle," the announcement said. "We ask for the cooperation of the public and ask your pardon for the inconvenience."

Thaksin, who has faced calls to step down amid allegations of corruption and abuse of power, was in New York at the U.N. General Assembly, and he declared a state of emergency in an audio statement via a government-owned TV station in Bangkok.

At least 14 tanks surrounded Government House, Thaksin's office. A convoy of four tanks rigged with loudspeakers and sirens rolled through a busy commercial district of Bangkok, warning people to get off the street for their own safety.

Army spokesman Col. Akara Chitroj said Deputy Prime Minister Chitchai Wannasathit had been removed from his post.

An army general, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said Chitchai and Defense Minister Thammarak Isaragura na Ayuthaya _ two Thaksin loyalists _ had been arrested.

"The government is no longer administering the country," Akara said.

In a vain attempt to stave off the coup, Thaksin in his state-of-emergency declaration from New York had ordered Sondhi to report to Chitchai immediately, effectively dismissing him.

Thaksin, who had been scheduled to address the General Assembly on Wednesday night, switched his speech to Tuesday at 7 p.m. EDT.

The coup went largely unnoticed in Bangkok's popular tourist districts, where foreigners packed bars and cabarets, oblivious to the activity about two miles away. But word raced among street vendors hawking T-shirts, who packed up their carts quickly and started heading home.

Hundreds of people gathered at Government House taking pictures of themselves with the tanks.

"I don't agree with the coup, but now that they've done it, I support it because Thaksin has refused to resign from his position," said university student Sasiprapha Chantawong. "Allowing Thaksin to carry on will ruin the country more than this. The reputation of the country may be somewhat damaged, but it's better than letting Thaksin stay in power."

The White House said it was monitoring the events.

Frederick Jones, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said President Bush's national security advisers had seen various reports of military movements as well as reports of a declaration of a state of emergency.

"We are monitoring developments closely, but the situation at the moment is unclear," Jones said. "We look to the Thai people to resolve their political differences in a peaceful manner and in accordance with principles of democracy and rule of law."

Former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, and a member of the opposition Democrat Party, said Thaksin had forced the military to act.

"As politicians, we do not support any kind of coup but during the past five years, the government of Thaksin created several conditions that forced the military to stage the coup. Thaksin has caused the crisis in the country," he told The Associated Press.

It was the first coup in Thailand since 1992, when an attempt by Prime Minister Suchinda Kraprayoon, a military general, to retain power was countered by mass street demonstrations and Suchinda's ouster. After that, the military vowed to remain in its barracks, in contrast to earlier decades when military coups were a staple of Thai politics.

Tuesday's coup came a day before a major rally _ the first in months _ was to take place in Bangkok by a anti-Thaksin coalition.

Massive rallies earlier this year forced Thaksin to dissolve Parliament and call an election in April, three years early. The poll was boycotted by the opposition and later annulled by Thailand's top courts, leaving it without a working legislature.

Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party twice won landslide election victories, in 2001 and 2005 and had been expected to win the next vote on Oct. 15, bolstered by its widespread support in the country's rural areas.

In March, Sondhi sought to ease speculation the military might join the political fray, as it last did in 1992 and more than a dozen other times during earlier crises.

"The army will not get involved in the political conflict. Political troubles should be resolved by politicians," Sondhi said at the time, echoing comments of other top military officials. "Military coups are a thing of the past."

On Monday, Thaksin had said he might step down as leader of Thailand after the upcoming elections but would remain as partly leader, despite calls for him to give up the post.

The first sign of the coup came when army-owned TV channel 5 interrupted regular broadcasts with patriotic music and showed pictures of the king. Later, several hundred soldiers were deployed at government installations and major intersections in Bangkok.

Thaksin's critics wanted to jettison his policies promoting privatization, free trade agreements and CEO-style administration.

Opposition to Thaksin gained momentum in January when his family announced it had sold its controlling stake in telecommunications company Shin Corp. to Singapore's state-owned Temasek Holdings for a tax-free $1.9 billion. Critics allege the sale involved insider trading and complained a key national asset moved to foreign hands.

Thaksin also has been accused of stifling the media and mishandling a Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand that flared under his rule.

In the mostly Muslim south, separatist insurgents have waged a bloody campaign that has left at least 1,700 dead, mostly civilians, since 2004. Citizens there have complained of rights abuses by soldiers and discrimination by the country's Buddhist majority.

Bhumibol, a 78-year-old constitutional monarch with limited powers, has used his prestige to pressure opposing parties to compromise during political crises. He is credited with helping keep Thailand more stable than many of its Southeast Asian neighbors.

He is the world's longest-serving monarch, celebrated his 60th year on the throne with lavish festivities in June that were attended by royalty from around the world.

Many Thais had been counting on him to pull the country through its political crisis, which has left it with no functioning legislature and only a caretaker government after the inconclusive election.

Bhumibol was born in Cambridge, Mass. He became the ninth king of Thailand's Chakri dynasty on June 9, 1946, succeeding his older brother, Ananda, killed by an unexplained shooting.

Since then, he has reigned through a score of governments, democratic and dictatorial. He has taken an especially active role in rural development.

In 1992, demonstrators against a military strongman were gunned down before the king stepped in to end the fighting and usher in a period of stability.

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