Thursday, September 21, 2006

Thai Military Ruler: No Elections for a Year

[Via AP]Thailand's new military ruler, winning crucial royal backing for his bloodless coup, announced Wednesday September 21, 2006 that he would not call elections for another year. As usual playing big bother, the U.S. and other Western nations expressed disapproval and urged a swift restoration of democracy.

Army commander Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin at his first news conference since seizing power Tuesday night, said he would serve as de facto prime minister for two weeks until the junta — which calls itself the Council of Administrative Reform — chooses a civilian to replace him and drafts an interim constitution.

Sonthi sealed the success of his coup by receiving royal endorsement as leader of the new junta, while ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who watched events unfold from abroad, pondered his future and the threat of possible prosecution at home.

Receiving the imprimatur of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej legitimizes the takeover, and should effectively quash any efforts at resistance by Thaksin's partisans. 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 Thailand.

There appeared to be a sense of relief among many Thais at the resolution of political tensions that had hung over the nation 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 humor in an almost holiday atmosphere. Schools, government offices and the stock market were closed Wednesday but were to reopen Thursday.

There was also hope that a new regime could more effectively address an Islamic insurgency in the south that has resulted in more than 1,700 deaths in the last two years.

Sonthi, a 59-year-old Muslim in a predominantly Buddhist country, had proposed several weeks ago opening talks with the southern Malay Muslim separatists, but Thaksin's government vehemently opposed such a move.

Sonthi shocked the public and internationally with his admission that security agencies had accumulated "black lists" of suspected Malay Muslim militants in the south.He stopped short of saying the list was used for indiscrinate and targeted killings Malay Muslims by the Thaksin administration.He said the list created misunderstanding and was an obstacle to national reconciliation. He called for an end to blacklists.

The Army chief has often been singled out in Thaksin's criticisms whenever serious incidents in the South have erupted. This has failed to tarnish his reputation as a professional soldier. Most analysts see Thaksin as the real obstacle to reconciliation.

The Southern Malay Muslims has long been fighting for a separation from Bangkok. The southern provinces were originally part of the ancient Malay Kingdom of Pattani, a region which adopted Islam in the mid-13th century. The Southern Pattani region was annexed by Thailand in 1902.

“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.

Outside Thailand, the coup drew criticism from several foreign governments and human rights groups, who expressed dismay at the overthrow of a popularly elected government.

The Bush administration denounced the coup and hinted that U.S. aid, military cooperation and improved trade relations might be in jeopardy. "There is no justification for it," State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said. "It is a step backward for democracy."

The European Union, which demanded "that the military forces stand back and give way to the democratically elected political government."

Human Rights Watch said the military "should immediately restore fundamental human rights and protect those exercising their rights to free expression, association and assembly."

The economic fallout was still hard to judge. The stock market was closed, but in currency markets the Thai baht fell sharply, its weakness rippling out to other Asian currencies, including the Singapore dollar, Malaysian ringgit and Philippine peso.

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

The swift and bloodless nature of the coup gave hope that the effects on Thailand's large tourist industry might be minimal, though several nations advised caution. Britain told its citizens in Thailand to stay in their homes, while Japan, Australia and Canada similarly advised caution.

Sonthi made two public appearances Wednesday, the first to make a brief formal announcement:

"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, flanked by the three armed forces chiefs and the national police chief.

His second appearance came at a news conference attended by about 300 Thai and foreign journalists. Seated on a stage, he spoke calmly but with confidence and smiled occasionally. Sonthi said Thailand's foreign policy and international agreements will remain unchanged, and that new general elections will be held by October 2007.

He said the coup, the country's first in 15 years, was necessary to heal rifts in Thai society, and to end corruption, insults to the king, and what the general called Thaksin's attempts to destroy democratic institutions.

Although Thaksin handily won three general elections, opponents accused him of emasculating democratic institutions, including packing the state Election Commission with cronies and stifling media.

Thaksin had a power base among the rural majority, a previously neglected segment who benefited from his populist policies of government assistance.

The junta warned farmers and workers not to stage protests, and military roadblocks were set up on the outskirts of Bangkok, reportedly to keep Thaksin's supporters from reaching the capital. Two minor pro-Thaksin demonstrations were briefly staged in Bangkok before being gently broken up by the authorities.

Thaksin flew from New York, where he had been attending the U.N. General Assembly, to London, where he maintains a residence. Sonthi also said "those who have committed wrongdoing have to be prosecuted according to the law."

Sri Kandeh says: Looking back into history a corrupted and cruel leader like Thaksin would ultimately get his price. As one of the Pattani Diasporas I always believed that time will tell.

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