With Premier at U.N., Thai Military Stages Coup
By SETH MYDANS and THOMAS FULLER, International Herald Tribune
Published: September 20, 2006
BANGKOK, Wednesday, Sept. 20 — In Thailand’s first coup in 15 years,
military leaders seized control of Bangkok on Tuesday night, suspended the
Constitution and declared martial law in the capital, effective immediately.
There were no reports of violence.
The moves came while Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was in New York
preparing to address the United Nations. He declared a state of emergency on
Thai television, but was cut off in midspeech. Later, he canceled his
address to the General Assembly.
The coup, led by the army chief, Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, also
“terminated” both houses of Parliament, the cabinet and the Constitutional
The events on Tuesday returned Thailand to a time that most experts here
thought was finally past, raising questions about the future of Thai
democracy and the stability of a country that is a prime tourist destination
with strong economic links to the West.
The coup came at the height of a drawn-out political crisis. In April, Mr.
Thaksin was forced by huge street protests to step aside despite an
overwhelming electoral mandate. In fact, though, he continued to lead the
government and to wage political battles against his opponents.
After a long break, demonstrations against the prime minister had been due
to resume this week, bringing with them the danger of violent clashes
between his supporters and opponents.
Late Tuesday night, General Sondhi was shown on television in an audience
with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a clear indication that the highly revered
constitutional monarch endorsed the move.
On a military-controlled television station, a general in civilian clothes
said a “council of administrative reform” had seized power in the name of
Speaking for General Sondhi, who has publicly feuded with the prime
minister, Gen. Prapas Sakultanak said that the military did not intend to
rule the country and that it would “hand power back to the people.” He gave
The military has a long history of political involvement, staging 18 coups
since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. The last one, in
1991, installed a military leader who was pushed from power by a popular
uprising the next year.
Under heavy rain, tanks and armored personnel carriers took up positions
blocking the entrance to the prime minister’s office on Tuesday night. Other
tanks arrived at government offices and major intersections. Witnesses
reported that roadblocks had been set up on roads leading into the city. The
streets were quiet, and even at the prime minister’s office there was little
tension. Some bystanders photographed one another standing near the tanks.
Kitichai Songkeattisi, 40, a commercial photographer, said: “The last time
was much more intense. People were more afraid.”
Mr. Thaksin is one of the most popular — and unpopular — prime ministers in
recent Thai history. Thais’ different viewpoints demonstrate a sharp social
divide that he has played on during the crisis.
Mr. Thaksin’s party, Thai Rak Thai, or Thais Love Thais, has won three
elections by landslides, in 2001, 2005 and again in April. Because of his
broad support among rural voters, he was widely expected to win any new
But as he has tightened his grip over much of the political scene,
opposition to him has swelled among the elite, mostly in Bangkok. Public
indignation rose after his family’s tax-free sale of its $1.9 billion stake
in a giant telecommunications company to a Singapore company.
On television, the military spokesman, General Prapas, accused Mr. Thaksin
of corruption and constant interference with the legislature and the courts.
He apologized to the public for any inconvenience caused by the coup.
In an effort to end the demonstrations and reassert control, Mr. Thaksin
called an early election in April, which he won in a landslide. But the
opposition boycotted the vote and a court annulled the result, in a severe
setback for the prime minister.
An election commission loyal to Mr. Thaksin set a new vote for Oct. 15, but
its members were removed and jailed by a court for malfeasance. A new
commission has said that election would be delayed.
The televised announcement on Tuesday was made after reports of large-scale
military movements around the capital. The military has been sharply divided
between officers loyal to the prime minister — some of them his relatives —
and others who oppose him.
There has been tension over an impending military shuffle that would
determine which faction would dominate.
Interviewed in New York by CNN soon after early reports of a coup, Deputy
Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai said, “We hope that the situation
should return to normal soon because the prime minister is constitutionally
and legally elected prime minister and this is an elected government, so we
have to do everything we can to uphold the principle of democracy.”
General Prapas, speaking in Thailand, laid out the rationale for the
“The government’s performance destroyed harmony in society,” he said.
“Everyone tried to win over each other, and the situation continued to
worsen. Most people don’t trust the government because there are many signs
He said the prime minister had hobbled independent bodies created by the
1997 Constitution to provide checks and balances. A leading demand of the
prime minister’s opponents is the writing of a new constitution that would
temper executive power.
General Prapas said many attempts had been made at compromise but had
failed. “That is why we, the Party for the Reform of Governance under the
Constitutional Democracy, which consists of the army commanders and national
police commander, have to seize power.”
He added: “We would like to insist that we have no intention of governing
the country. We will return the power of constitutional monarchy back to
Thai people as soon as possible to maintain peace and stability.”