BANGKOK, Thailand – In the dead of night and without firing a shot, Thailand’s military overthrew popularly elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Tuesday amid mounting criticism that he had undermined democracy.
The sudden, well-orchestrated coup, the first in 15 years and a throwback to an unsettled era in Thailand, was likely to spark both enthusiasm and criticism at home and abroad. The military said it would soon return power to a democratic government but did not say when.
Striking when Thaksin was in New York at the U.N. General Assembly, army commander Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin sent tanks and troops into the drizzly, nighttime streets of Bangkok. The military ringed Thaksin’s offices, seized control of television stations and declared a provisional authority loyal to the king.
On Wednesday, in his first public appearance since seizing power, Sondhi said that the overthrow was needed “in order to resolve the conflict and bring back normalcy and harmony among people.”
“We would like to reaffirm that we don’t have any intention to rule the country and will return power to the Thai people as soon as possible,” he said a brief television address. He was flanked by the three armed forces chiefs and the head of the national police force.
He said the newly created Council of Administrative Reform carried out the coup to end intensifying conflicts in Thai society, corruption in the government, insults to the revered Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and what the general called Thaksin’s attempts to destroy democratic institutions.
The coup leaders declared martial law, revoked the constitution and ordered all troops not to leave duty stations without permission from their commanders. The stock exchange was closed Wednesday, along with schools, banks and government offices.
In an apparent effort to block any moves by Thaksin supporters, especially those in the countryside, a council statement urged farmers and workers to remain calm, adding that any assembly of more than five people was punishable by six months in prison.
Across the capital, Thais who trickled out onto barren streets welcomed the surprise turn of events as a necessary climax to months of demands for Thaksin to resign amid allegations of corruption, electoral skullduggery and a worsening Muslim insurgency. Many people were surprised, but few in Bangkok seemed disappointed.
A few dozen people raced over to the prime minister’s office to take pictures of some 20 tanks surrounding the area.
“This is exciting. Someone had to do this. It’s the right thing,” said Somboon Sukheviriya, 45, a software developer snapping pictures of the armored vehicles with his cell phone.
The U.S. State Department said it was uneasy about the military takeover.
“We are monitoring the situation with concern,” a statement said. “We continue to hope that the Thai people will resolve their political differences in accord with democratic principles and the rule of law.”
Japan and New Zealand criticized the coup. Australia used stronger language, saying it was concerned to see democracy “destroyed.”
Sondhi, 59, who is known to be close to the revered constitutional monarch, will serve as acting prime minister, army spokesman Col. Akarat Chitroj said. Sondhi, well-regarded within the military, is a Muslim in this Buddhist-dominated nation.
Sondhi was selected last year to head the army partly because it was felt he could better deal with the Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand, where 1,700 people have been killed since 2004. Recently, Sondhi urged negotiations with the separatists in contrast to Thaksin’s hard-fisted approach. Many analysts have said that with Thaksin in power, peace in the south was unlikely.
In New York, Thaksin declared a state of emergency in an audio statement via a government-owned TV station in Bangkok, a vain attempt to stave off the coup. He later canceled a scheduled address to the U.N. General Assembly.
A Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said Thaksin tentatively planned to return to Thailand quickly. The official said he could not comment on the possibility of his being arrested if he returned.
“The prime minister has not given up his power, he is not seeking asylum,” said Tom Kruesopon, CEO of Boon Rawd Trading International Co., who said he was speaking on behalf of Thaksin. Kruesopon added there was uncertainty over Thaksin’s immediate plans.
However, Thaksin’s official government spokesman, Surapong Suebwonglee, also with Thaksin and contacted by phone from Bangkok, painted a gloomier picture.
“We have to accept what happened,” he said. “We are not coming back soon.”
Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon turned politician, handily won three general elections since coming to power in 2001 and garnered great support among the rural poor for his populist policies.
But he alienated the urban middle class, intellectuals and pro-democracy activists. They began mass street demonstrations late last year, charging Thaksin with abuse of power, corruption and emasculation of the country’s democratic institutions, including what was once one of Asia’s freest presses.
He also alienated a segment of the military by claiming senior officers had tried to assassinate him in a failed bombing attempt. He also attempted to remove officers loyal to Sondhi from key positions.
Some of Thaksin’s critics wanted to jettison his policies promoting privatization, free trade agreements and CEO-style administration.
“I don’t agree with the coup, but now that they’ve done it, I support it because Thaksin has refused to resign from his position,” said Sasiprapha Chantawong, a university student. “Allowing Thaksin to carry on will ruin the country more than this.”
Early Wednesday, the coup leaders announced that the appointment of the country’s four regional army commanders to keep the peace and run civil administration in their respective areas outside Bangkok.
A senior army general, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said the chiefs of the army, navy and air force met with the king Tuesday to discuss formation of an interim government.
Bhumibol, a 78-year-old constitutional monarch with limited powers, has used his prestige to pressure opposing parties to compromise during political crises. He is credited with helping keep Thailand more stable than many of its Southeast Asian neighbors.
The bloodless coup was the first overt military intervention in the Thai political scene since 1991, when Suchinda Kraprayoon, a military general, toppled a civilian government in a bloodless takeover. An attempt by Suchinda to keep power led to street demonstrations, and he was ousted in 1992. Afterward, the military promised to remain in its barracks.
As recently as March, Sondhi, the army chief and Tuesday’s coup leader, sought to ease speculation the military might join the protests against Thaksin.
“The army will not get involved in the political conflict. Political troubles should be resolved by politicians,” Sondhi said then. “Military coups are a thing of the past.”