- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 20, 2006

BANGKOK — Thailand’s military and police officers yesterday promised to install a civilian interim prime minister within two weeks, so elections could take place in one year.

Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, the army commander who seized Thailand’s government in a quick, bloodless coup, also received the endorsement of the country’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Such support is regarded as crucial for the survival of the coup.

Gen. Sondhi said that he would act as prime minister for two weeks until a new leader is chosen by the Council of Administrative Reform, that an interim constitution would be drafted within that time and that Thailand’s foreign-policy and international agreements would remain unchanged.

He also said there would be no elections for a year.

The Bush administration denounced the coup, saying it was a “step backward for democracy,” but did not warn Americans to leave. Australia called the government seizure a “great disappointment,” and the European Union also condemned it.

The king appointed Gen. Sondhi as head of the council “in order to create peace in the country,” according to an announcement on state-run television.

“All people should remain peaceful, and civil servants should listen to orders from Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin from now on,” it said.

Gen. Sondhi is an ethnic Muslim whose promotion last year to commander in chief in this Buddhist-majority country was billed as a plus, because he was tasked with ending an escalating Islamist insurgency in the south, led by separatist minority ethnic Malays.

Early today, the coup leader won the support of a rebel leader waging an Islamic insurgency in the southern part of the country.

“It is the right thing that the military has taken power,” said Lukman B. Lima, an exiled leader in one of several groups fighting the central government for a separate Muslim state.

“We hope that the political [situation] can be resolved under Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin as the new leader,” Mr. Lukman said.

The Thai military censored press and broadcast outlets, including CNN and British Broadcasting Corp. satellite TV news, and banned public political gatherings.

Security forces reportedly arrested a few anti-coup demonstrators who unfurled a banner that said, “Fasting in Protest Against the Destroyer of Democracy,” but released them within hours, Thai press reported.

Gen. Sondhi, 59, declared yesterday a government holiday, shutting banks, the stock market, universities and other institutions. Many Thais stayed home and remained glued to regime-controlled TV, radio or independent satellite broadcasts and Web sites.

Asked whether any moves would be made to confiscate Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s vast assets, Gen. Sondhi said, “Those who have committed wrongdoings have to be prosecuted according to the law.”

He did not elaborate.

Mr. Thaksin’s problems began when he failed to pay any income tax after his family sold its Shin Corp. telecommunications empire to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings in February for $1.9 billion.

Stung by the coup’s swiftness and embarrassed that it forced him to cancel his speech at the United Nations, Mr. Thaksin yesterday arrived in London, where he has a home.

Hoping to stem international criticism, Gen. Sondhi insisted to diplomats that Thailand was still a democracy and that tourists were welcome to continue visiting this tropical country.

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