Thailand US Trained Military Mount Bloodless Coup

Published: Wed 20 Sep 2006 08:45 AM
Thailand's U.S.-Trained Military Mount A Bloodless Coup
By Richard S. Ehrlich
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Troops from Thailand's U.S.-trained military, backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers, seized the prime minister's office on Tuesday (September 19) night and filled TV screens with propaganda, in a bloodless coup led by a "revolutionary body" to end corruption and stop perceived attacks on the king.
"There has been social division like never before," a self-appointed Military Reform Council announced without identifying its members.
"Each side has been trying to conquer another with all possible means, and the situation tends to intensify with growing doubts on the administration, amid widespread reported corruption," it said, seeming to acknowledge criminal allegations against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
"State units, and independent organizations, have been politically meddled [with], not able to deliver their services as specified in the Constitution. The administration is also usually bordering on 'leste majeste' actions against the revered King," it said, making an extremely sensitive accusation which has been punishable by imprisonment.
Coup troops on the street tied yellow ribbons on their weapons, symbolic of the color favored by the monarch at a time when many Thais have been wearing yellow shirts every week to display their loyalty to King Bhumibol Adulyadej during his 60th year on the throne.
"The revolutionary body thus needs to seize power. We have no intention to rule, but to return the power to the people as soon as possible, to preserve peace, and honor the King who is the most revered to all Thais."
The statement was broadcast in Thai language on domestic TV stations and translated into English by the Nation newspaper.
Crucially the king, born in Cambridge, Mass., did not immediately appear to publicly voice his support for, or against, the coup.
Many Thais will wait for his blessing, or criticism, before deciding how to react to soldiers crushing democracy.
The frail constitutional monarch, 78, has limited political power, but is regarded as a "father" of all Thais and attracts devout emotional loyalty, psychologically trumping the influence of any prime minister or general.
Thailand has suffered more than a dozen coups and coup attempts since the 1930s. Some coups initially appeared to be a military success, but quickly crumbled after the king declined to support the new regime.
In the 1970s, and in 1992, military coup leaders remained in power until deadly insurrections by common citizens in Bangkok forced changes at the top amid widespread revulsion against the army's dictators.
This Buddhist-majority, Southeast Asian nation did not seem to be in immediate danger of ending its tight military alliance with the United States, or Bangkok's robust capitalist policies.
Before the announcement, the prime minister appeared to lamely insist he was in control by declaring via TV on Tuesday (Sept. 19) a "serious emergency law in Bangkok from now on."
But he did so while in New York City attending the United Nations General Assembly, far from the tanks, armored personnel carriers and Humvees rumbling through Bangkok's rainy night.
Critics of Mr. Thaksin's democratically elected government had hoped to put him on trial for tax evasion and other alleged crimes, and seize his family's vast wealth.
Mr. Thaksin's next move, and when he will return home, remained unclear.
Domestic TV programs were knocked off the air during the military move on Tuesday night, and instead broadcast loops showing the king and his family, accompanied by royal anthems and music -- signals that the government was no longer in control, but the new regime loved the king.
Around midnight, live CNN and BBC broadcasts from Bangkok via satellite disappeared from Thailand's TVs, replaced by advisories apologizing for the interruption and then by blackness.
Mr. Thaksin's woes date back to February when his family sold its stake in its Shin Corp. telecommunications empire to Singapore's government-owned Temasek Holdings investment group for 1.9 billion U.S. dollars.
The Thaksin family did not pay taxes on the deal, insisting it was done offshore and legally did not qualify for Thai tax.
Huge, peaceful street demonstrations in Bangkok began in March demanding Mr. Thaksin resign, but he had been elected by a vast majority in 2001 and 2005, so he held a snap election in April to confirm his mandate.
Though he also won that poll, it was later deemed illegal, and fresh elections were scheduled for Oct. 15, and then shifted to mid-November, which he was expected to win.
Though despised by much of Bangkok's wealthy elite and middle class, including Thai media, business leaders, students, intellectuals and others, the prime minister was very popular in the countryside where most people live, because his cheap health care, debt cancellations, and other government give-aways benefited the poor.
Opponents of the prime minister had planned a fresh street protest on Wednesday (September 21) to demand Mr. Thaksin not be allowed to return home from New York City, and instead resign and face possible prosecution.
The protestors had been describing themselves as fighting for democracy and protecting the king -- while opposing privatization and U.S. Free Trade agreements -- but it was unclear what move they will make in response to the military seizing power.
"Thaksin said he decided to declare the state of emergency because the situations were not stable. His orders came after reports that Gen. Sondhi was trying to stage a coup d'etat," the opposition-minded Nation newspaper reported, referring to charismatic army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin.
Mr. Thaksin transferred Gen. Sondhi to the Prime Minister's Office, but that move may have angered the general's loyalists within the military, and inspired them to move against Mr. Thaksin.
© Copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich, who has reported news from Asia for the past 28 years, and is co-author of the non-fiction book of investigative journalism, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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