The Thai Prime Minster, Thaksin Shinawatra, appeared to have been deposed last night after a bloodless military coup executed just hours before he was due to address the United Nations in New York.
Confusion reigned across Bangkok as tanks made their way through the heavy late-night drizzle to surround Government House, without firing a shot. Television channels, which had interrupted normal programming to play patriotic songs for much of the evening, broadcast a statement signed by the army's commander in chief, General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, saying martial law had been declared.
"The armed forces commander and the national police commander have successfully taken over Bangkok and the surrounding area in order to maintain peace and order. There has been no struggle," the statement said.
Several hundred soldiers were deployed at key points in the capital, Bangkok, including government installations and major intersections, witnesses said.
Yellow plastic ribbons tied to the gun barrels of tanks and heavy artillery parked on street corners were thought to be a gesture of support for Thailand's revered constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. His role remains unclear, though it is widely assumed he has given the coup plotters tacit backing.
A senior army general said the chiefs of the army, navy and air force met with the king to discuss the formation of an interim government, suggesting it would probably be led by civilians.
Despite the show of force with troops deployed to major junctions across the city, traffic continued largely unaffected and the military maintained a polite almost apologetic tone: "We ask for the co-operation of the public and ask your pardon for the inconvenience."
The majority of the thousands of foreign tourists, including many Britons, packed into the city's famous bars and backpacking districts were unaware that anything had changed.
In a bid to pre-empt his ousting Mr Thaksin declared a state of emergency from UN headquarters in New York and attempted to dismiss the country's two top generals, ordering them to report to his deputy.
The billionaire tycoon, who once tried to buy Liverpool Football Club, has been the target of a wave of mass protests since he was accused of profiteering from a tax change which allowed the billion-pound sell-off of his family firm - the country's main telecoms supplier, ShinCorp.
He was due to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York at 11pm last night but the speech was cancelled three hours before he was scheduled to appear.
General Sondhi's announcement declared that a "Council of Administrative Reform" with the King as head of state had seized power in Bangkok and nearby provinces without any resistance. The council, it said, would soon return power to a democratic government. It also announced the closure of the stock market, banks and schools today.
General Sondhi, a Muslim in this Buddhist-dominated country, is known to be close to King Bhumibol. An army spokesman told reporters that the Deputy Prime Minister, Chitchai Wannasathit, had been removed from his post. " The government is no longer administering the country," the spokesman said. "I think Thaksin will not return to Thailand for the time being," he added, without elaborating what would happen if the apparently deposed premier were to return. General Sondhi said the coup leaders had arrested Mr Chitchai along with the Defence Minister, Thammarak Isaragura na Ayuthaya, both Thaksin loyalists. Mr Thaksin had telephoned a television channel in Bangkok from New York to read a statement. "I declare Bangkok under a severe state of emergency," he said. He was still talking after 10 minutes when the station cut him off.
Thai officials travelling with Mr Thaksin indicated that he expected to contest the coup on his return home, although there was no indication when he might make the journey. Last night he remained holed up on the Grand Hyatt Hotel on 42nd Street.
"The Thai Prime Minister is quite calm," a senior Thai official said. "He feels that he is the elected Prime Minister and he would like to safeguard the constitution of the country."
Protesters gathered outside the Thai consulate in New York, chanting " Thaksin go to hell".
There were rumours of a counter-coup by Mr Thaksin's military backers but no resistance was evident.
The coup came a day before a major rally in Bangkok by an anti-Thaksin coalition that has been seeking his resignation for corruption and abuse of power. Mass protests demanding his resignation began late last year, resulting in a political crisis that has dragged on for months.
A troubled leadership
Thaksin Shinawatra, a satellite communications mogul, is elected Prime Minister. He is subsequently charged and acquitted of managing his family business while in office.
Muslim radicals launch an insurgency in the southern provinces. Thaksin fails to quell the rebellion.
Thaksin is re-elected, becoming the first Thai Prime Minister to serve out a full four-year term.
Publisher Sondhi Limthongkul accuses the government of corruption and mishandling the Muslim insurgency.
Thaksin's family sells stake in his telecoms empire for a tax-free US$1.9bn (£1bn). Critics allege insider trading.
Tens of thousands of protesters gather in Bangkok demanding Thaksin's resignation. Thaksin calls snap elections to defuse protests. Thailand's three main opposition parties boycott vote.
Voters go to polls. Thaksin claims victory, saying his Thai Rak Thai party won 57 per cent of votes. Under pressure, Thaksin announces he will step down to end the protests.
Thaksin accuses army officers of plotting to kill him after police find bomb-making materials near his house.
16 September 2006
Six simultaneous motorcycle bombs kill three people and wound more than 60 in Hat Yai.
19 September 2006
Military launches a coup while Thaksin is in New York and declares martial law.Reuse content