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Muslim rebel leader welcomes Thailand's coup

india Updated: Sep 21, 2006 14:18 IST
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An exiled Muslim rebel leader on Thursday welcomed Thailand's military overthrow of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, saying the coup could help resolve a bloody Islamic insurgency in the country's south.

The takeover on Tuesday by army commander Gen Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, a Muslim in a predominantly Buddhist country who accused Thaksin's government of corruption, has been endorsed by Thailand's revered king and many Thais eager for an end to political turmoil.

But Western governments expressed dismay over the coup, launched while the popularly elected Thaksin was abroad, and urged a speedy return to democracy.

Thaksin, who used an iron-fisted policy in trying to suppress the insurgency, was widely detested in southern Thailand and many moderate Muslims said that the bloody conflict could never be solved as long as he remained in power.

"It is the right thing that the military has taken power to replace the Thaksin Shinawatra government," 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," Lukman said.

In an e-mailed response to questions from the agency, Lukman said Sondhi was the "only one who knows the real problems" of the Muslim-dominated provinces of southern Thailand.

Lukman, exiled in Sweden, is vice president of the Pattani United Liberation Organization, or PULO.

"We will continue to fight until full independence (is attained) in Pattani," he said, referring to the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.

Sondhi, 59, had proposed several weeks ago opening talks with the separatists, but Thaksin's government vehemently opposed such a move.

"Thaksin's government has totally failed to quell the violence, so we are pinning our hope on the Council of Administrative Reform," said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, a political scientist from Prince of Songkhla University in the southern province of Pattani.

Thaksin arrived on Wednesday in London from New York where he had been attending the UN General Assembly.

It was not known whether he would seek to stay in London, where he has a residence, or return to Thailand, where he could face prosecution for corruption.

Sondhi has said he would serve as de facto prime minister for two weeks and then the junta, which calls itself the Council of Administrative Reform, will choose a civilian to replace him.

A Constitution is to be drawn up and elections held in one year's time.

The military leader received the imprimatur Wednesday of revered King Bhumibol received, which should effectively quash any efforts at resistance by Thaksin's partisans.

Since taking over, coup-leaders have detained Deputy Prime Minister Chitchai Wannasathit and Thaksin's top aide Prommin Lertsuridej for questioning, the Council of Administrative Reform confirmed in a statement late on Wednesday.

Two ministers close to the deposed leader -- Newin Chidchob and Yongyuth Tiyapairat -- were "invited" to report to the junta.

The Nation newspaper on Thursday published a 100-name "watch list" of additional politicians, business people and others close to Thaksin who could be investigated by the new power brokers.

The junta empowered Auditor-General Jaruvan Maintaka to investigative government corruption, which could lead to the confiscation of Thaksin's assets.

Jaruvan, dubbed "The Iron Lady" was one of the few government officials who tried to expose corruption during Thaksin's regime and would have lost her job if it had not been for backing from the palace. The Office of the Auditor-General announced Wednesday it would continue its investigation into 14 alleged corruption cases which occurred during Thaksin's tenure.

Thaksin's ouster followed a series of missteps that prompted many to accuse the prime minister of challenging the king's authority -- an unpardonable act in this traditional Southeast Asian nation that is a popular vacation destination for Westerners.

Many Thais appeared relieved at the resolution of political tensions festering since the beginning of the year, when street demonstrations demanding Thaksin step down for alleged corruption and abuse of power gained momentum.

Thailand has had no working legislature and only a caretaker government since February, when Thaksin dissolved parliament to hold new elections in an effort to reaffirm his mandate.

The presence of tanks and armed soldiers on the streets of Bangkok, a city of more than 10 million, was taken with good humour in an almost holiday atmosphere.

The bloodless nature of the coup gave hope that the effects on Thailand's large tourist industry might be minimal. Schools, government offices and the stock market were closed on Wednesday but reopened on Thursday when Bangkok's notorious traffic jams returned with a vengeance.

The US government denounced the coup, Thailand's first in 15 years, and hinted that US aid, military cooperation and improved trade relations might be in jeopardy.

"It is a step backward for democracy," State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said. The European Union demanded "that the military forces stand back and give way to the democratically elected political government."

The International Monetary Fund, which bailed Thailand and some of its neighbours out of a financial crisis in the late 1990s, believed the region would be little affected, said the IMF's chief, Rodrigo de Rato.

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