- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 20, 2006

BANGKOK — Troops from Thailand’s U.S.-trained military seized power in a bloodless coup yesterday, ousting Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra while he was in New York to address the U.N. General Assembly and proclaiming their loyalty to the king.

With more than a dozen tanks ringing the prime minister’s office, a self-appointed Military Reform Council took to the airwaves to declare a state of martial law and the suspension of the constitution.

The broadcast did not identify the members of the council, but army spokesman Col. Akara Chitroj told reporters that army commander Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin would serve as acting prime minister.

Deputy Prime Minister Chitchai Wannasathit and Defense Minister Thammarak Isaragura na Ayuthaya — both Thaksin loyalists — were reported to have been arrested.

Thailand did not seem in immediate danger of ending its close military alliance with the United States, or Bangkok’s robust capitalist policies.

“We look to the Thai people to resolve their political differences in a peaceful manner and in accordance with principles of democracy and rule of law,” said Frederick Jones, a spokesman for President Bush’s National Security Council.

The coup follows months of political turmoil sparked by charges of corruption on the part of Mr. Thaksin, a wealthy businessman, and came on the eve of a mass rally to demand his resignation.

The Military Reform Council said its rule would be temporary and that power would soon be returned to civilians.

It also declared that it was acting in defense of the nation’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who holds enormous moral authority in Thailand and on June 9 marked the 60th anniversary of his coronation. Troops patrolling on a drizzly evening tied yellow ribbons to their weapons in a sign of loyalty to the monarch, who is understood to be personally close to Gen. Sonthi.

“There has been social division like never before,” said the council’s televised statement. “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.”

“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.”

Crucially the king, born in Cambridge, Mass., did not immediately speak out for or against the coup. Many Thais will wait for his blessing, or criticism, before deciding how to react to the military takeover.

Thailand has suffered more than a dozen coups and coup attempts since the 1930s. Some coups initially appeared to be successful, but crumbled when the king declined to support the new regime.

In the 1970s, and in 1992, military coup leaders remained in power until popular uprisings forced them to cede power.

As news of the coup first broke, Mr. Thaksin issued a statement from New York warning against “illegal” military movements and announcing a “serious emergency law.” The prime minister canceled his scheduled address to the U.N. General Assembly last night.

The prime minister has still to decide whether to return to Thailand from New York after the overnight military coup, his spokesman said.

“Prime Minister Thaksin is now in New York and he has not yet made up his mind where he will go. But he will have to make a decision soon,” government spokesman Surapong Suebwonglee said.

The billionaire politician still has an official plane at his disposal. He has a private residence in London, where one of his daughters is studying.

Mr. Thaksin’s wife, Potjaman, reportedly left Bangkok for Singapore late yesterday as the coup was announced.

A senior Thai official in New York said earlier that Mr. Thaksin planned to leave the United States overnight but that his destination was unknown.

Mr. Thaksin’s woes began in 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.

The Thaksin family did not pay taxes on the deal, insisting it was done offshore and therefore exempt.

Huge crowds took to the streets in protest, prompting Mr. Thaksin to hold a snap election in April to reaffirm his mandate. His solid victory in that poll was thrown out by the courts because of irregularities.

The election was to have been repeated in mid-November, with Mr. Thaksin still favored to be re-elected.

Though despised by much of Bangkok’s wealthy elite and middle class, including press, business leaders, students, intellectuals and others, the prime minister was very popular in the countryside where most people live, because of his cheap health care, debt cancellations, and other government give-aways that benefited the poor.

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