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Sonthi’s swift coup spells a royal flush in Thailand

Updated On: Sep 22, 2006

Royal Thai Commander-in-Chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratklin has certainly played his cards right.

He is now the most powerful person in Thailand as interim prime minister after unseating Thaksin while he was participating in the UN General Assembly in New York this week. Gen. Sonthi has the support of the armed forces while the King has sanctioned him to head the group of coup leaders (including commanders of the army, navy and air force) in the Council for Democratic Reform under the Constitutional Monarchy (CDR).

According to the Straits Times, the coup leaders had met pro-Thaksin Gen. Prin Suwanthat, the commander of the 1st Infantry Division that was based in Bangkok, earlier on Tuesday. Being outnumbered, Gen. Prin had no choice but to acquiesce. It was, ironically, mainly Gen. Prin’s men who were deployed in the coup. An anonymous source told the Bangkok Post that “the July reshuffle of middle-ranking officers which placed officers loyal to the army chief… in direct command of battalion-level forces gave the coup makers the troops needed to stage the coup. [Moreover] the absence of resistance was [some officers] immediately switched sides when they realised [they were] no match to the coup makers”.

The army has surrounded key official buildings such as Government House and Parliament, while seizing control of Thailand’s telecommunications network. The 1997 Constitution has also been suspended while there is a ban on public assembly of more than five people.

As expected, the TRT party is in rampant disarray. Thaksin and his family are said to be in London. Gen. Sonthi remarked that while Thaksin was free to return toThailand, investigations of wrongdoers would continue and be “prosecuted according to the law”. As it stands, Thaksin’s assets remain liquid. The Bank of Thailand Governor Pridiyathorn Devakula has declared, “If the sum is less than US$10 million in a year, the transaction can be done without the central bank's approval.” Pridiyathorn has also insisted that as Thaksin and his family have not been “deemed criminals”, the Bt73 billion made from the Shin Corp sale remains theirs, the Nation reported.

Former deputy prime minister Chidchai Wannasathit is in CDR custody, while former ministers Newin Chidchob and Yongyuth Tiyapairat are wanted by the CDR for controlling the media in favour of the government and trying to clamp down on pro-democracy demonstrators the day after the coup had taken place. Other ministers and MPs are keeping a low profile in the meantime.

In a press conference, Gen. Sonthi has announced plans to restore peace and stability. He has professed to install an “interim civilian government within the next two weeks… [that] will spend up to a year penning a new constitution for political reform… Once the new constitution is in place, the general election will be called”. He also stated that the CDR was searching for a neutral [person] who “advocates democracy with the constitutional monarchy” to be the interim premier.

The coup has garnered mixed reactions. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other international leaders have condemned the coup as undemocratic. Within Thailand, people are ambivalent. The Bangkok Post said that Thai academics were “in a quandary as they are opposed to unconstitutional means of taking over state power as a matter of principle and yet feel there were justifiable motives for doing so”.

Surichai Wankaew, a Chulalongkorn University political scientist, told the Bangkok Post, “I don't want to see coup d'etat, but at the same time I don't want him [Thaksin Shinawatra] either… He had a chance to step down gracefully once… Now the chance has gone.” Nakarin Mektrairat, political science dean of Thammasat University, agreed, saying, “Thailand had no other option but the coup because normal political mechanisms could not function… If Thaksin had taken a political break and let the mechanisms work, there would not have been the revolt”.

A Bangkok Post editorial has also commented that while the coup was lamentable, this “step backward” was the only way for Thailand to “move forward”.

An ad hoc poll of 2,019 Thais by Rajabhat Suan Dusit College showed that 84% believed the coup would ease the political situation. It is uncertain if pro-Thaksin regions were included in the poll. However, the CDR has urged workers and farmers to remain calm in a bid to pre-empt any uprising. In Bangkok, however, things are very calm, even festive. The public seemed relaxed during Wednesday’s “coup holiday”. People stopped to chat with the soldiers, offering drinks and roses in a sign of support and solidarity, while children clambered about the tanks and took photos with the troops.

As for the deep South, it is uncertain what the impact will be. Thai Muslims remain nonchalant to the coup, while others wonder if Thaksin’s departure bodes national reconciliation. Gen. Sonthi, a Muslim, has been adamant about resolving the Southern crisis through peaceful means and discussions with insurgent groups, even in the face of criticism and disapproval by Thaksin. Exiled Pulo chief Lukman Lima has reportedly “welcomed the military coup, and says it may help to end southern violence”.

For the moment, the economic outlook is uncertain. The baht plummeted on news of the coup but has climbed back and stabilized. The International Monetary Fund has announced that the “coup has so far failed to make a financial impact on Thailand”. Meanwhile, many business leaders and analysts predict that although the coup will “shake local markets in the short term”, political reforms will make way for a brighter outlook.

Sources:

UN chief urges return to civilian rule (Bangkok Post, 21 September 2006)

Timing could not have been better, says army source (Bangkok Post, 21 September 2006)

Academics in quandary after putsch (Bangkok Post, 21 September 2006)

Thaksin's out, so will peace come to South? (Bangkok Post, 21 September 2006)

Step back so as to move forward (Bangkok Post, 21 September 2006)

Most peaceful military coup in Thai history (Bangkok Post, 21 September 2006)

CDR urged to return civil rights swiftly (Bangkok Post, 21 September 2006)

King endorses CDR (Bangkok Post, 21 September 2006)

Pulo figure says coup could help South  (Bangkok Post, 21 September 2006)

Business leaders hope time is right for reform to take hold (Bangkok Post, 21 September 2006)

IMF chief says financial damage yet to be felt (Bangkok Post, 21 September 2006)

Moody's affirms Thailand's credit ratings with stable outlook (Nation, 21 September 2006)

'Two weeks then we'll go' (Nation, 21 September 2006)

Govt. heavies flee after many held(Nation, 21 September 2006)

Thai coup leader to hand over power ‘in two weeks’ (Straits Times, 21 September 2006)

Thaksin outflanked as tanks roll in (Straits Times, 21 September 2006)

Asian governments wait and watch. (Straits Times, 21 September 2006)

84 percent ‘back coup’ (Straits Times, 21 September 2006)

Foreign Minister George Yeo expresses deep concern over recent coup in Thailand (Channel News Asia, 21 September 2006)