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Coup leaders in Thailand take parliament role

Tighten control as citizens return to work

BANGKOK -- Thailand's new military rulers tightened their grip yesterday, restricting political activities, assuming legislative powers and detaining some allies of the deposed prime minister.

In announcements broadcast on all television stations, the military said it was banning all meetings by political parties and the creation of new parties. It said it was taking over the duties and responsibilities of parliament, which was dissolved when the coup leaders threw out the 1997 constitution.

The Thai ruling council has also imposed media restrictions, including stationing soldiers at television and radio stations, and ordering the information ministry to stop the distribution of information ``deemed harmful" to its agenda.

The moves seemed likely to increase criticism from Western nations and human rights groups, which described Tuesday night's ouster of an elected but unpopular civilian government as a setback to democracy.

In a region where democracies are fragile in the best of times, the coup has also unleashed worries about nearby nations where political unrest is common. Political analysts said images of tanks rolling through Bangkok's streets sent an unfortunate message, but that the chances of a spillover effect appeared remote.

``At a time when many countries are struggling to consolidate their democracy, this is a bad example," and raises questions about stability in the region, said political analyst Dewi Fortuna Anwar of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

There was no challenge to the Thai military's authority from the ousted prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who issued his first statement since the coup. The billionaire tycoon said from London that he planned to take a ``deserved rest" from politics, and hoped to carry out charitable work for Thailand.

The coup group empowered an auditor to investigate government corruption, which could lead to the confiscation of Thaksin's wealth. Analysts said that proving Thaksin's alleged corruption was necessary to legitimize the coup.

Pasuk Phongpaichit, one of Thailand's most respected political economists, alleged that corruption was blatant under the Thaksin government but said a coup was not the best way to handle it.

``A democratic country must have a constitution and adhere to the rule of law," she said. ``If the prime minister has done something wrong, he must be tried and he should be judged."

Although Thaksin handily won three general elections, opponents accused him of emasculating democratic institutions, including packing the state Election Commission with cronies and stifling media that were once among Asia's freest.

Traffic jams returned to the streets and Thais went back to work yesterday, with many in Bangkok describing the military takeover the most ``friendly" coup this country has seen.

Except for some soldiers on street corners and tanks at strategic points in and around the city, yesterday was like any other day in the congested Thai capital. Commuters crammed the subways, vendors lined shopping streets while hawking handicrafts and grilled kebabs, shops were open, and tourists were out.

Many Thais appeared relieved at the resolution of political tensions festering since the beginning of the year, when street demonstrations demanding Thaksin step down started growing in size and vehemence.

Thailand has had no working legislature and only a caretaker government since February, when Thaksin dissolved Parliament to hold new elections in an effort to reaffirm his mandate.

The coup leader, army commander General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, has said he would serve as prime minister for two weeks and then the ruling military council will choose a civilian to replace him.

A constitution is to be drawn up and elections held in one year's time.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the new military leadership -- which yesterday released the official English translation of its name, the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy -- confirmed that four of Thaksin's close associates were being kept in custody.

Office Minister Newin Chidchob and Environment Minister Yongyut Tiyapairat turned themselves in yesterday, while Deputy Prime Minister Chitchai Wannasathit and Thaksin's top aide, Prommin Lertsuridej, were detained earlier.

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