Military Tightens Grip, PM flees Thailand After Coup

Mark Mayne | Correspondent | Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Military Tightens Grip, PM flees Thailand After Coup

London ( - Following a bloodless coup overnight, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has fled to London from New York, where he was attending the United Nations General Assembly.

Thaksin, a close ally of the U.S., cancelled a speech he was due to give at the U.N. on Tuesday evening, as news of the coup emerged.

His official spokesman, Surapong Suebwonglee, initially declared confidence that the coup would fail, but as events in the Thai capital unfolded, he told the Associated Press: "We have to accept what happened. We are not coming back soon."

Thaksin chartered a Russian plane to fly him and his entourage to the U.K. early Wednesday, according to a Thai reporter accompanying him.

Meanwhile, martial law has been declared in Thailand, where large groups of people have gathered and critical news reporting has been banned. As Bangkok residents slept, tanks moved through the Thai capital surrounding government buildings, while soldiers arrested Thaksin's deputy and chief aide, Chidchai Vanasathidya. Tanks have now completely cordoned off the government district, with yellow ribbons tied around their barrels to show loyalty to Thailand's revered king.

Although no shots were fired during the coup, eyewitnesses described a scene of confusion and chaos. TV news stations were occupied by the military, all broadcasts stopped. Thais were warned to stay at home, but many walked the streets, adding to the confusion.

A British citizen speaking from Bangkok said: "Thailand is the last place I would expect a military coup. The roads to the airport are blocked with tanks and soldiers, and the atmosphere is tense. Although most people seem quiet so far, it is a pretty frightening situation to suddenly occur. "

Army Chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin said in a TV address that the coup was necessary to unite the country, and that a new PM would be chosen within two weeks.

Gen. Sonthi claimed he was acting with the support of the Thai people, blaming government incompetence for forcing coup leaders to act.

He forcefully denied that the military wanted permanent power, assuring viewers that military rule is only temporary.

"We have two weeks. After two weeks, we will step out," he said.

World leaders have expressed widespread concern, while tourists are being advised to avoid travel to the region. In Washington, the State Department said that officials "are monitoring the situation with concern."

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who was in New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio: "We deeply regret the fact that such a coup has taken place; obviously to see democracy destroyed in that way is a matter for grave concern to us,"

"It's unacceptable for the military just to overthrow a government in this way," he added.

Widely seen as one of Southeast Asia's most stable democracies, the news has rattled Thailand's immediate neighbors, and is likely to send ripples of unrest throughout the region.

This is the first coup attempt in 15 years in a country where such activity used to be common. there were 17 coups between 1932 and 1991.

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