Thursday, September 21, 2006

Diary of a coup

The newly installed Thai military leader said yesterday a new prime minister will be named within two weeks. Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin said elections would be held only after a new constitution had been written. State TV announced that Thailand's ageing but revered King Bhumibol had endorsed army chief Gen Sonthi as temporary leader, although there has been no direct communication from the King himself.

The bloodless coup d'├ętat took place late on Tuesday evening Thai time but tensions had been building all day. The timing was opportunistic. The troubled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was in New York for a UN General Assembly meeting. Probably aware that something was afoot he called an urgent teleconference with all armed forces' commanders at 8am. No-one showed for the meeting. Gen Sonthi later said the meeting is hastily called. All day, rumours spread around the capital that the army is planning a coup but there is no solid information. Finally, at 6pm the army acted. Armed Forces special units poured into Bangkok and took up key positions through the city. At 8pm, police are issued heavy arms are put on notice to prepare for a riot. An hour later, the Army controlled TV Channel 5 interrupts regular programming and replaces it with patriotic songs. Information is still hard to come by, with no-one confirming or denying that a coup has taken place. More rumours emerge that say the deputy premier and defence minister have both been arrested and Thaksin’s son has fled the country. Just after 10pm the news has filtered through to CNN. Thaksin was quickly on the phone to demote the Army leader and declare a state of emergency. But his intercontinental orders were ignored.

At 11pm local time a group calling itself the Administrative Reform Council (ARC) appeared on local TV to issue a statement. The polite statement said “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. We ask for the cooperation of the public and ask your pardon for the inconvenience”.

In the next few hours, they issued three more statements clarifying their intent. The second statement outlines the reasons for the coup d'etat, citing national disunity and rampant corruption and the council says it plans to return power quickly to the people. The third said the constitution is nullified as is the caretaker Cabinet and the Constitutional Court. The fourth statement said that the ARC chief has now taken the power of the prime minister. It signalled that the power show was officially over for Thaksin, Thailand’s richest man.

On the Wednesday, Thaksin cancelled his planned speech to the UN and flew instead to London where his daughter is studying. Foreign governments were torn between condemnation of the coup and careful consideration of the new de facto government. Assistant US Secretary of State Christopher Hill said “It's really too early to form any hardened judgments”. Back in Bangkok martial law was imposed and all government, businesses and universities were advised to close for the day. However other than an obvious military presence on the streets, there was little impact. Restaurants and bars stayed open, the streets were busy and tourists continued to spend their money.

The Thai army have a long tradition of stepping in to suspend democracy in the country. Tuesday’s event is the 18th coup (ten of which saw a change of leader) since King Bhumibol ascended the throne in 1946. And almost all of the successful ones have occurred with the tacit approval of the King. The 2006 coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin is the first Muslim to lead the mostly Buddhist Thai army. There has been more than 1,000 deaths since 2004 in a mostly underreported war between the army and Muslim rebels in the region bordering Malaysia. On the day of the post, the Bangkok Post reported a rare interview with Thailand's senior Muslim, known as the Chularatchmontri. He said “the government is on the right track to solve southern unrest”. It will be intriguing to see whether the country’s first Muslim leader will share that view. The world will have some time to judge as he announced he would not call elections for another 12 months.

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