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Thai general promises to restore democracy

General Sondhi Boonyaratglin, who orchestrated the coup, pledged to resign from power in two weeks and restore democracy in a year.

india Updated: Sep 20, 2006 21:05 IST
Agence France-Presse
Agence France-Presse

Thailand's new military ruler pledged on Wednesday to resign from power in two weeks and restore democracy in a year, after sweeping aside Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless coup.

General Sondhi Boonyaratglin, who orchestrated Tuesday night's coup while the premier was out of the country, said Thaksin had been pushed out in line with the wishes of the people after months of political turmoil.

"I will resign as interim prime minister within two weeks and now we are looking for the person who will become the new prime minister," said Sondhi, who added that he hoped to hold new elections in October 2007.

"The potential candidates are politically neutral and love democracy, with the king as head of state," he said.

After announcing the coup on Tuesday night, Sondhi and his generals met with revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who in the past has given his tacit blessing to replace unpopular leaders and restore order in times of crisis.

Thailand has been wracked by months of upheaval since Thaksin's family sold nearly two billion dollars of shares in the telecom firm he founded-without paying any tax.

Waves of street protests convinced Thaksin to call a new election in April and step down temporarily, but the poll descended into chaos and members of the election commission were jailed on charges of helping Thaksin's party.

New elections were repeatedly delayed, and Sonthi said the generals had finally decided it was time to take action. He denied the king was involved.

"Nobody was behind us. We decided on our own, and we took care of it on our own," he said.

"We decided within the last two days to stage a coup because the people have called for it and also because of the mismanagement of the government," Sondhi said. Across Thailand, there were no immediate reports of violence or unrest.

Sondhi, who announced after the coup that the constitution had been annulled, said a new interim constitution would be ready earlyin October, which would lead to a permanent constitution about one year later.

"The next general election will hopefully take place in October next year (2007)," the general said.

Earlier, Sondhi said there would be strict new controls on the media and a ban on public gatherings. The country's border with Laos and Myanmar in the north, a strongly pro-Thaksin area, was closed.

In the capital Bangkok, the epicentre of the anti-Thaksin movement, many people seemed relieved. People adorned military vehicles with flowers and some gave soldiers food and drink.

"The revolution ... was not that bad and there was no violence," said the Governor of the Bank of Thailand, Pridiyathorn Devakula. "This change is acceptable to the people, so it should not affect investments."

Still, there was concern about a return to heavy army involvement in the politics of Thailand, which has endured 18 coups in the past seven decades, and leaders around the world condemned the move.

"I would want democracy to be restored in Thailand. We condemn military coups," said Australian Prime Minister John Howard. "They are a throwback to a past that I had hoped Asia had emerged from, and it's a great disappointment."

The seizure of power by Sondhi, the largely Buddhist nation's first-ever Muslim army chief, came amid widespread criticism of Thaksin's handling of a militant Islamic uprising in the south of the country.

More than 1,400 people have been killed in nearly three years of violence in the south and the unrest has continued to intensify despite Thaksin's imposition of martial law in parts of the region.

As pockets of troops took up positions across Bangkok on Tuesday night-many wearing yellow as a sign of loyalty to the king-Thaksin watched on television in New York as his five years in power slipped away.

He was there to give an address during the opening of the annual United Nations General Assembly, but cancelled his appearance.

Britain's Foreign Office said Thaksin was expected to arrive in London lateron Tuesdaybut did not give further details.

Sondhi said Thaksin was free to return to Thailand but cautioned that he could face criminal charges.

"Any prosecution would proceed under the law, and would depend on the evidence," he said.

First Published: Sep 20, 2006 21:05 IST