Thais wait and see after coup

Tuesday evening was just like any muggy night, except for telltale signs that suddenly had residents of the Thai capital sitting up. Troops in camouflage, fully armed with machine guns, were fanning out across the city streets, and news reports soon said tanks were taking over the Government House and that soldiers had gone into the prime minister’s office.

Thais are far from unfamiliar with coups but the last one was in 1992. It was clear that a military coup was underway against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was away at the United Nations in New York when coup leaders announced past 1 am on Wednesday that they had overthrown the PM. Hours earlier, Thaksin, the subject of growing opposition by critics at home, had declared a state of emergency from New York and announced the removal of the army chief. But what was important to many was what was happening on the ground in Bangkok. His deputy PM, Surakiart Sathirathai, insisted that the government remained in control.

Past midnight, cable television channels like CNN and BBC stopped. Instead, government TV repeatedly played the anthem of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, showing footage on the king and an announcement by the army chief, Sondhi Boonyarakkarin, saying that martial law had been declared and that troops had been asked to return to their bases after the PM had been ousted.

“In our hearts that’s where he stays, he’s the light that shines across the skies,” went one of the songs played on television, in reference to the king. Clearly, the message by the coup plotters — who were reported to have announced martial law in the wee hours of the morning of September 20 — was that they had stepped in to save the country, and that they were in support of the King. There has been no statement from the palace, however.

Calling themselves “loyal” officers, coup leaders declared a provisional authority in support of the King, who marks the 60th year of his ascension of the throne this year. News reports from Thai TV Channel 5, the army channel, said that a “Council of Administrative Reform” has been formed with the king as head of state. At 1:30 am local time, a spokeswoman on army television said that there will be no more caretaker PM, referring to Thaksin. “The military will take control of the country until there is a new PM,” she said.

The coup comes after months of political turmoil in Thailand, all swirling around Thaksin, a billionaire whose Thai Rak Thai party won a landslide victory in 2001 but whose political star has since fallen — and how.

Public opinion began turning against him after reports emerged that his family had sold a stake in its Shin Corp telecommunications empire in January without paying taxes. Public protests were held in the months afterward, forcing Thaksin to call early polls in April to gain a new mandate. His party won that vote — boycotted by opposition parties. But the election was annulled due to irregularities and Thaksin became caretaker PM, and was meant to be so until new elections are held later this year.

In the wee hours of Wednesday most of Bangkok was awake, wondering if there would be work the next day, if Thaksin would come back to Bangkok — and if he did, would there be stability. — IPS