In Bangkok, Thais take military coup in stride

September 21, 2006|By John M. Glionna | John M. Glionna,Los Angeles Times

BANGKOK, Thailand -- In the end, the military coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was fitting for this largely Buddhist nation.

Not a shot was fired. As government overthrows go, this one was about as nonviolent as a country can get.

Yesterday, women offered roses to many of the hundreds of young soldiers who patrolled the streets in their green khaki uniforms. Outside Government House, the official residence of the deposed Thaksin, curious onlookers gathered at the gates to take pictures with cell phones and digital cameras.

Residents waved handkerchiefs and cheered Humvees filled with military men. At one point, a soldier allowed three young women into the Government House compound. Then he took their picture as they posed, smiling in front of a hulking military tank that seemed out of place amid the frivolity.

And the news yesterday from the coup's leaders was apparently aimed at easing any lingering fears. Army commander Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, who led the insurrection that ousted Thaksin while the prime minister was at the U.N. General Assembly, promised to hold free elections by October 2007 and said Thailand would have an interim constitution within weeks.

That pledge was good enough for Weerapong Intarapanich.

"I'm taking pictures because I want to remember this day forever," said the 36-year-old engineer as he poked his nose through the bars outside Government House. "We got rid of a corrupt prime minister Thai-style: no blood, nobody hurt or killed."

The coup, Thailand's first in 15 years, quickly turned into a sort of impromptu national holiday. Sondhi, who received crucial royal backing yesterday for the bloodless coup, gave government workers the day off, and much of the rest of the nation followed suit.

Still, foreign embassies were taking no chances on the potential for violence. U.S. officials urged Americans to reconsider travel to Thailand. Britain told its citizens in the country to stay at home. Australia advised its own to exercise "extreme caution" in the Thai capital, where the military moved in about midnight, closing television stations, announcing martial law and declaring a provisional authority loyal to the king.

At a news conference yesterday, Sondhi said he would serve as de facto prime minister until the junta chooses a civilian to replace him within two weeks.

Outside military headquarters, where Sondhi addressed reporters, thousands chanted slogans against Thaksin, who arrived in London yesterday from New York.

Thaksin, a billionaire businessman and former police captain, had served two terms in office, during which he was charged by critics with abuse of power, corruption and crackdowns on democratic institutions such as newspapers and television stations.

But many journalists said they were wary that the new government would bring improvement. Soldiers stormed TV stations late Tuesday as the coup got under way, in some cases ordering anchors off the air as they were delivering the late-night news.

Israeli businessman Lorne Zee, who has lived in Bangkok for two years, said he would take a wait-and-see attitude toward Thailand's new government.

"The first sign I see that they're taking freedom away from people's everyday lives," he said, "I'm leaving this country."

John M. Glionna writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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