Thai general pledges elections in one year

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The Independent Online

The army commander who seized Thailand's government in a rapid, bloodless coup pledged today to hold elections by October 2007 while hinting that the ousted premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, may face prosecution for wrongdoing.

General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin led a precision takeover overnight without firing a shot, sending soldiers and tanks to major intersections and surrounding government buildings while the popularly elected Thaksin, accused of corruption and undermining democratic institutions, was in New York.

Asked whether there would be moves to confiscate Thaksin's vast assets, Sondhi said at a news conference that "those who have committed wrongdoings have to be prosecuted according to the law." He did not elaborate.

Thaksin, a tycoon-turned-politician, had been in New York for the UN General Assembly, where he cancelled his scheduled address.

The British Foreign Office said Thaksin would arrive in Britain later today on a "private visit," and a reporter for Thai TV station Channel 9 who was travelling with Thaksin said he had boarded a flight from New York to London.

Sondhi said he would act as prime minister for two weeks until a new leader is found, that a new interim constitution would be drafted within that time, and that Thailand's foreign policy and international agreements would remain unchanged.

Thailand will hold a general election in October 2007, Sondhi said.

He said the coup, Thailand's first in 15 years, was necessary to heal mounting rifts in Thai society and end government corruption, insults to revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and what the general called Thaksin's attempts to destroy democratic institutions.

Bangkok, a city of more than 10 million, was calm today. Most residents appeared unfazed. About 500 people gathered outside army headquarters this afternoon to lend moral support to the military, chanting "Thaksin Get Out!"

The newly created Council of Administrative Reform put the country under martial law and declared a provisional authority loyal to the Thai king, seizing television and radio stations and ordering government offices, banks, schools and the stock market to close for the day.

Nearly 20 tanks - their machine gun barrels festooned with ribbons in the royal color, yellow - blocked off the Royal Palace, Royal Plaza, army headquarters and Thaksin's office at Government House.

Sondhi said on nationwide TV 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, flanked by the three armed forces chiefs and the national police chief.

A statment from coup leaders urged workers and farmers - statement key constituents - to remain calm, and said unauthorized gatherings of more than five people were punishable by six months in prison under martial law.

The Nation newspaper in Bangkok said several senior government officials and others close to Thaksin had been arrested, their fates unknown.

It said they included Deputy Prime Minister Chitchai Wannasathit and Supreme Military Commander General Ruengroj Maharsaranond.

Agriculture Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan, one of Thaksin's closest political associates, fled to Paris with her family, it said.

Reacting to rumours that he would be appointed interim prime minister, central bank head Pridiyathorn Devakula said, "I haven't been approached and I don't know whether I am a candidate."

He said that the public has accepted the coup, so it was unlikely to have much impact on foreign confidence in the country, and that the Thai baht currency had recovered from its overnight low with no intervention.

In New York, a Thai business executive who said he was speaking on behalf of Thaksin said the toppled leader was not resigned to his fate.

"The prime minister has not given up his power. He is not seeking asylum," said Tom Kruesopon, chief executive officer of Boon Rawd Trading International Co., who said he was travelling with Thaksin.

But Thaksin's official government spokesman, Surapong Suebwonglee, also travelling with him, painted a gloomier picture. "We have to accept what happened," he said. "We are not coming back soon."

Some Thais welcomed the coup as a necessary climax to months of demands for Thaksin's resignation amid allegations of corruption and electoral skullduggery, and a worsening Muslim insurgency in south Thailand.

A few dozen people raced over to the prime minister's office overnight to photograph the tanks.

"This is exciting. Someone had to do this. It's the right thing," said Somboon Sukheviriya, 45, a software developer snapping pictures with his mobile phone.

The US State Department said it was uneasy about the military takeover and hopes "the Thai people will resolve their political differences in accord with democratic principles and the rule of law."

Australia said it was concerned to see democracy "destroyed," and New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said her country "condemns" the coup.

Japan called for efforts to quickly restore democracy in Thailand, where many leading Japanese businesses have factories and affiliates.

Sondhi, 59, known to be close to Thailand's constitutional monarch, is a Muslim in a Buddhist-dominated nation.

He was selected last year to head the army, partly because it was felt he could better deal with the Muslim insurgency in the south, where 1,700 people have been killed since 2004. He has urged negotiations with the separatists, in contrast to Thaksin's hard-fisted approach.

Former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, a member of the opposition Democrat Party, reflected an ambivalence that is likely to continue in coming days.

"As politicians, we do not support any kind of coup, but during the past five years the government of Thaksin created several conditions that forced the military to stage the coup. Thaksin has caused the crisis in the country," he told The Associated Press.

Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon before entering politics, 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 him with abuse of power, corruption and emasculation of the country's democratic institutions, including media that were once among Asia's freest.