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Thai prime minister overthrown in coup

Military quietly takes over while leader is in N.Y.

Military tanks surrounded the streets of Government House in Bangkok yesterday as the Thai Army took control of the city.
Military tanks surrounded the streets of Government House in Bangkok yesterday as the Thai Army took control of the city. (Sukree Sukplang/ Reuters)

BANGKOK, Thailand -- In the dead of night and without firing a shot, Thailand's military overthrew popularly elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra yesterday after mounting criticism that he had undermined democracy.

The sudden, well-orchestrated coup -- a throwback to an unsettled era in Thailand -- was likely to spark both enthusiasm and criticism at home and abroad. The military said it would soon return power to a democratic government but did not say when.

Striking when Thaksin was in New York at the UN General Assembly, army commander General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin sent tanks and troops into the drizzly, nighttime streets of Bangkok. The military ringed Thaksin's offices, seized control of television stations, and declared a provisional authority loyal to the king.

In his first public appearance since seizing power, Sondhi asked for the public's support and declared the coup was necessary to end serious conflicts within Thai society that Thaksin had created.

``We would like to reaffirm that we don't have any intention to rule the country and will return power to the Thai people as soon as possible," he said a brief television address. He was flanked by the three armed forces chiefs and the head of the national police force.

The coup leaders declared martial law, revoked the constitution, and ordered all troops not to leave duty stations without permission from their commanders. The stock exchange was to be closed today, along with schools, banks, and government offices.

Bangkok's normally bustling streets emptied out early today, from shopping stalls to red light districts, as Thais and tourists learned of the coup.

Across the capital, Thais who trickled out onto barren streets welcomed the surprise turn of events as a necessary climax to months of demands for Thaksin to resign amid allegations of corruption, electoral dishonesty, and a worsening Muslim insurgency in the south.

Many people were surprised, but few in Bangkok seemed disappointed.

A few dozen people raced over to the prime minister's office to take pictures of tanks surrounding the area.

``This is exciting. Someone had to do this. It's the right thing," said Somboon Sukheviriya, 45, a software developer who snapped pictures of the armored vehicles with his cellphone.

The US State Department said it was uneasy about the military takeover and hopes political differences can be resolved through democratic principles. ``We continue to hope that the Thai people will resolve their political differences in accord with democratic principles and the rule of law," a statement said.

Thaksin recently alienated a segment of the military by claiming senior officers had tried to assassinate him in a failed bombing attempt. He also attempted to remove officers loyal to Sondhi from key positions.

Sondhi, who is known to be close to Thailand's revered constitutional monarch, will serve as acting prime minister, army spokesman Colonel Akarat Chitroj said. Sondhi, well-regarded within the military, is a Muslim in this Buddhist-dominated nation.

Sondhi, 59, was selected last year to head the army partly because it was believed he could better deal with a Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand, where 1,700 people have been killed since 2004. Recently, Sondhi urged negotiations with the separatists in contrast to Thaksin's hard-fisted approach.

Many analysts have said that with Thaksin in power, peace in the south was unlikely.

In New York, Thaksin declared a state of emergency in an audio statement via a government-owned TV station in Bangkok -- a vain attempt to stave off the coup. He later canceled a scheduled address to the UN General Assembly.

A Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said Thaksin tentatively planned to return to Thailand quickly.

The official said he could not comment on the possibility of his being arrested if he returned.

Government spokesman Surapong Suebwonglee, who was with Thaksin, said the coup leaders ``cannot succeed" and was confident they would fail ``because democracy in Thailand has developed to some . . . measure of maturity."

However, Sondhi's troops appeared to be in full control and clearly enjoyed the support of the monarch.

Former prime minister Chuan Leekpai, a member of the opposition Democrat Party, reflected an ambivalence that is likely to surface in coming days.

``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.

Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon turned politician, handily won three general elections since coming to power in 2001 and garnered great support among the rural poor for his populist policies.

But he alienated the urban middle class, intellectuals, and prodemocracy activists.

They began mass street demonstrations late last year, charging Thaksin with abuse of power, corruption, and emasculation of the country's democratic institutions, including what was once one of Asia's freest presses.

Some of Thaksin's critics wanted to jettison his policies promoting privatization and free trade agreements.

The coup was the first overt military intervention in the Thai political scene since 1991.

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