Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Thai coup leader says he'll be acting PM

Thai coup leader says he'll be acting PM

By DENIS D. GRAY, Associated Press Writer 21 minutes ago

BANGKOK, Thailand - The army commander who seized Thailand's government in a swift, bloodless coup promised Wednesday to act as prime minister for only two weeks, until a new leader "who is neutral and upholds democracy" is found and a temporary constitution is enacted.

Army chief Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin told a news conference that a general election would be held in October 2007, and he hinted that ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra could face prosecution for wrongdoing.

In the country's first coup in 15 years, Sondhi led a well-orchestrated overthrow while Thaksin was in New York at the U.N. General Assembly. Sondhi said on nationwide television that the overthrow was needed "in order to resolve the conflict and bring back normalcy and harmony among people."

"I am the one who decided to stage the coup. No one supported me," Sondhi said, referring to Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The British Foreign Office said Thaksin was to arrive in Britain Wednesday on a private visit. A spokeswoman for London's Gatwick Airport said a chartered Thai Airways jet was due to land there around noon EDT.

The Thai Embassy in London said it had no immediate information on Thaksin's whereabouts.

A British government spokesman said Thaksin had no meetings scheduled with Prime Minister
Tony Blair or other officials.

"Any citizen of the world is free to visit the United Kingdom providing their paperwork is in order," he said on condition of anonymity in line with government policy. "He can come spend his money at Harrods if he wants to."

Bangkok, a city of more than 10 million, was calm Wednesday, and most residents appeared unfazed. About 500 people gathered outside army headquarters Wednesday afternoon to lend moral support to the military, chanting "Thaksin Get Out!"

The newly created Council of Administrative Reform put the country under martial law and declared a provisional authority loyal to the Thai king, seizing television and radio stations and ordering government offices, banks, schools and the stock market to close for the day.

The unexpected coup rattled Asian financial markets Wednesday and pressured the Thai baht and other regional currencies, though its economic repercussions remained unclear.

International Monetary Fund, which bailed Thailand and some of its neighbors out of a financial crisis in the late 1990s, was closely watching the situation but believed the region would be little affected, said the IMF's chief, Rodrigo de Rato.

"Thailand's economy is fundamentally strong," de Rato said.

Nearly 20 tanks — their machine gun barrels festooned with ribbons in the royal color, yellow — had blocked off the Royal Palace, Royal Plaza, army headquarters and Thaksin's office at Government House.

The tanks began shifting Wednesday afternoon from positions taken in downtown Bangkok. It was not immediately clear whether the tanks were withdrawing, or merely changing positions. Government public relations officials said they could not immediately comment.

Asked whether there would be moves to confiscate Thaksin's vast assets, Sondhi said that "those who have committed wrongdoings have to be prosecuted according to the law." He did not elaborate.

The Nation newspaper in Bangkok said several senior government officials and others close to Thaksin had been arrested, their fates unknown.

It said they included Deputy Prime Minister Chitchai Wannasathit and Supreme Military Commander Gen. Ruengroj Maharsaranond.

Agriculture Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan, one of Thaksin's closest political associates, fled to Paris with her family, it said.

European Union condemned the coup and demanded a return to a "democratically elected" government.

The U.S. State Department said it was uneasy about the military takeover and hopes "the Thai people will resolve their political differences in accord with democratic principles and the rule of law."

The U.S. Embassy, in an e-mail to its citizens living in Thailand, said while there had been no reports of violence, 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," the e-mail read.

Britain told its citizens living in Thailand to stay in their homes, while Japan, Australia and Canada advised citizens to be extremely careful in the Thai capital.

Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon before entering politics, 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 pro-democracy activists. They began mass street demonstrations late last year, charging him with abuse of power, corruption and emasculation of the country's democratic institutions, including media that were once among Asia's freest.

The bloodless coup was the first overt military intervention in the Thai political scene since 1991, when Suchinda Kraprayoon, a military general, toppled a civilian government in a bloodless takeover. He was ousted in 1992 following street demonstrations.


Associated Press Writers Jill Lawless in London and Elaine Kurtenbach in Singapore contributed to this report.

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