Army chief promises return to democracy

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Tourists were having their pictures taken next to the tanks in Bangkok yesterday, while crowds of Thais stood and stared at them as if they were some bizarre new art installation. It didn't feel like a country where a military coup had brought to an abrupt end to 15 years of peaceful democracy.

The shops were open, the mobile phones were working, and the airport was packed with foreign tourists still arriving. On the streets there was little menace: Thais were chatting to the soldiers at the barricades.

And yet, just hours before, a prime minister even his enemies admit was Thailand's most successful democratic politician had been forced from power while attending the UN General Assembly in New York.

Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted billionaire premier, flew in to Gatwick last night and sped off in a limousine waiting at the steps of his chartered plane. The Foreign Office said Mr Thaksin, whose daughter is studying in London, is on a private visit.

The man who ousted him, General Sondhi Boonyaratglin, appeared on Thai television. For many Thais, it was the first time they'd seen him, a Muslim in a predominantly Buddhist country, so low was the profile kept until the bloodless coup.

He would run the country for only two weeks, he said, before handing over to a civilian prime minister. Democracy would be fully restored in a year's time after the constitution had been rewritten. But he also hinted that Mr Thaksin, who he said was free to return, may face prosecution.

The third player in the drama stayed away from the cameras: King Bhumibol Adulyadej. It was a palace announcement that sealed the general's seizure of power, when the King gave his approval. But the question being whispered in Bangkok was whether the King had accepted the inevitable or been in on the coup from the start. It was, in the words of one observer, "the culmination of months of shadow-boxing between the palace and the Prime Minister".

A country seen as a rare light of democracy in south-east Asia is suddenly under martial law, ending a political crisis that has festered since Mr Thaksin was unconvincingly re-elected last April, amid charges of fraud. An old nightmare has come back to haunt Thailand: there were 17 coups between 1932 and 1991.

The coup was also the culmination of months of street protests against Mr Thaksin. The accusations of corruption had reached fever pitch after his sale of a family telecommunications companynetted him a tax-free profit of $1.9bn (£1bn).

But opinion on the streets was divided. "We've been waiting for this to happen for a long time," Chandana Sitachitt said. "We don't like Thaksin. He sold all the things that belonged to the people. I like Gen Sondhi. He's a Muslim but he's a Thai first."

But others spoke out in favour of the deposed premier. "We like Thaksin. He did a lot for our country," Nog, a young woman on her way home from work in the shops, said. "He took us from being a small, unimportant country to being a big one."

The international reaction to the coup remains muted, and there were no demands that Mr Thaksin be reinstated, although the White House said it was "disappointed" in the coup and called for a swift restoration of democracy.

Speaking in New York, the Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, said: "It's not for us to say that he should be reinstalled. We have called for a return to democratic government."