Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Coup leader first Muslim army chief

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) -- Few people expected Thailand's political crisis to lead to a coup. But when the military made its move to take over the government Tuesday, it came as no surprise that Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin was in charge.

Despite surge of anti-government protests in recent months, Sonthi had given indications that a government seizure wasn't in the cards.

"Military coups are a thing of the past," he said recently, echoing comments from other top military officers. "Political troubles should be resolved by politicians."
Sonthi, the first Muslim army commander in Buddhist-dominated Thailand, was appointed to the army's top post last year with a mission to deal with an Islamic insurgency in the country's south.

He was seen as having unique qualifications for the job. His religion gave him extra credibility among Muslims, and his service as a former head of the special warfare command made him well suited to the task. In addition, his service in the Vietnam War won him the respect of veterans.

"I will make the Royal Thai Army into the army of the people, and will make soldiers the beloved soldiers of the people," Sonthi said as he assume the top post last year.

Coups are nothing new to Thailand, but many hoped that after 14 years of uninterrupted civilian rule, the days of revolving door military regimes might finally be over.

In recent months, however, mass protests and an impasse over flawed elections have thrown the country into its worst crisis since the last army takeover in 1991.

Even as recently as last week, amid growing tensions in the wake of an alleged bomb plot against now-ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Sonthi was quashing coup rumors.
"Has the situation gone to that point? No. There is still a way to go by democratic means," the 59-year-old officer said then. "We should stop talking about it. It is impossible."

Sonthi is thought to be close to Thailand's revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has expressed unhappiness with Thaksin's administration.

When the move came Tuesday against the prime minister, he was in the forefront.

Sonthi took power without a shot being fired and coup officials said he will serve as acting prime minister.

Warnings over Thailand travel

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) -- The United States has urged Americans to reconsider any travel to Thailand while Britain told its citizens living there to stay in their homes, after the Thai military toppled the country's prime minister in a coup.
Australia advised its citizens to exercise "extreme caution" in the Thai capital, where tanks surrounded government offices, and to avoid political rallies or concentrations of military personnel.

"In light of the very uncertain political situation and apparent military-led takeover of the government, we strongly advise Australians to reconsider their need to travel to Thailand until the situation is clarified," the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said.
It asked those already in the capital to stay at home, and monitor the media.
The U.S. Embassy, in an e-mail to its citizens living in Thailand, said that while there had been no reports of violence in the overnight coup, Americans should "monitor the situation closely, avoid any large gatherings and exercise discretion when moving about the city."

"At this point, we are not advising Americans to leave Thailand; however, Americans planning to travel to Thailand may wish to carefully consider their options before traveling until the situation becomes clearer."

Britain's Foreign Office, in a notice on its Web site, warned that movement in the capital may be curtailed due to the imposition of martial law that came as the Thai Prime Minister was in New York attending the U.N. General Assembly.

Japan on Wednesday warned its citizens in Thailand to take extreme caution.

"Those visiting Thailand should try to obtain the latest information, and stay at home or hotel," according to the ministry's overseas travel advisory published early Wednesday.

"Japanese staying in Thailand should also avoid the palace, the government headquarters and concentrations of military personnel," the advisory said, urging others planning a trip to the Southeast Asian country to postpone their trip.
New Zealand also warned its citizens in Thailand to be careful when moving around the city.

"Don't go sightseeing around government buildings. If a curfew is imposed -- and there is talk of a curfew -- then it should be respected," Ambassador Brook Barrington told Radio New Zealand in Wellington.

The New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was assessing whether to change its advisory for Thailand.

The coup appeared to cause little stir in Bangkok's popular tourist districts, where foreigners packed beer bars and cabarets just a few kilometers from where the tanks were posted.

Thai army coup ousts PM

BANGKOK (Reuters) - The Thai army took control of Bangkok on Tuesday without a shot being fired, dismissed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, revoked the constitution and promised a swift return to democracy after political reforms.

A government spokesman at the United Nations with Thaksin telephoned a Thai television station to announce a state of emergency in an apparent attempt to head off the coup. He said the army could not succeed and "we're in control".

But tanks and troops took over Government House in Thailand's first coup in 15 years and a coup spokesman said the army and police were in control of the capital and surrounding provinces.

Armoured vehicles and soldiers took up position on many street corners, but life in most of Bangkok continued much as usual with traffic moving through rain drenched streets and the airport operating normally.

The seizure would be temporary and power "returned to the people" soon, retired Lieutenant-General Prapart Sakuntanak said on all Thai television channels.
Foreign news channels, including CNN and the BBC, were cut off.

The army told all soldiers to report to base and banned unauthorised troop movements, suggesting the military leadership was worried that Thaksin loyalists in the armed forces might attempt a counter-coup.

Prapart said the armed forces and police had set up a body to decide on political reforms, ousting billionaire telecoms tycoon Thaksin in the midst of a political crisis stemming from accusations he had subverted Thailand's 74-year-old democracy.

Chronology of political events in Thailand

(Reuters) -- Following are several recent political developments in Thailand leading to Tuesday's declaration of a state of emergency by Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra:

February 6, 2005: Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party wins a second landslide election victory, taking 377 of the 500 seats in parliament.

September 9, 2005: State-run television takes a current affairs show hosted by Thaksin's former business associate, Sondhi Limthongkul, off the air, citing repetition of "unfair" criticism of various parties.

January 23, 2006: Thaksin's relatives sell their controlling stake in Shin Corp, the telecoms empire he founded, to Singapore state investment firm Temasek. The tax-free $1.9 billion sale angers Bangkok's middle classes and adds momentum to Sondhi's campaign.

February 24: Thaksin calls a snap election on April 2, three years early and two days before a big anti-government rally.

February 27: Three main opposition parties announce an election boycott after Thaksin rejects their demand for a neutral body to reform the constitution.

April 2: Election is held despite opposition boycott.

April 4: After a strong protest vote, Thaksin meets revered King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, before announcing on national TV that he will step down as soon as the next parliament meets.

April 5: Thaksin hands day-to-day power to Deputy Prime Minister Chidchai Vanasatidya.

April 26: The three main opposition parties say they will stand in a new election if April 2 poll is annulled.

May 8: Constitutional Court rules that the election is unconstitutional and a new poll should be held.

May 23: Thaksin takes back reins of power, saying it was time to get back work on economic and security issues.

May 30: Government sets election re-run for Oct. 15. King approves the re-run in late July saying he wants a swift end to the crisis.

July 20: Thai army chief unexpectedly re-assigns more than 100 middle-ranking officers thought to be supporters of Thaksin, adding to rumors about divided army and possible coup.

September 19: Thaksin declares a state of emergency after tanks surround Government House.

Thailand coup picture