A Festive Coup in Thailand

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Thai soldiers with a tank park in front of Thailand's famous marble temple near the Thai Government House in Bangkok, Tuesday night, September 19, 2006.

It was near midnight on Tuesday, tanks had rolled up to Bangkok's Government House and the monsoons were drenching the crowds. But the mood during Thailand's first military coup since 1991—the previous one eventually ended with protesters gunned down in the streets—was remarkably festive. Women in miniskirts posed for pictures in front of tanks, while elderly men in pajamas jabbered on cellphones. Last spring, hundreds of thousands of Thai citizens had organized daily peaceful protests on Bangkok streets, calling for the resignation of caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose popularity in urban areas had nosedived after the controversial sale of his family telecom business. Now, after months of political instability, the military brass appeared to have gotten much closer to unseating the Thai leader than months of democratic assembly had. "Of course, I wish that the political situation had been solved in a democratic way," says Makarathep Thepkanjana, a physician who joined the anti-Thaksin rallies back in the spring and who was now standing next to a tank at the gates of Government House. "But, we are exhausted from having so many rallies. We're happy that the military coup is happening, because it means that Thaksin will be gone."

Welcome to democracy, Thai style. Late on Tuesday evening, with satellite feeds of BBC and CNN intermittently jammed, a military spokesman announced on Thai TV that the armed forces, under the command of Army Chief Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, had taken over Bangkok and surrounding areas and was declaring martial law. The spokesman blamed the military's extreme measures on what he termed corrupt practices by Thaksin, alleging that the Prime Minister had hampered the workings of both parliament and the courts. Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a constitutional monarch, was reaffirmed as head of state, while the spokesman promised that a new caretaker Prime Minister would be named. (Cavalry regiment soldiers stationed by Government House had yellow ribbons, a color associated with the monarchy, tied to their uniforms and rifles in an apparent signal that the coup enjoyed the King's tacit support.) By 3 a.m., TV announcers had declared Wednesday a holiday for most citizens, while civil servants were asked to report to military bases at 9 a.m.

Rumors of an army rebellion had been floating through Bangkok for weeks, and they only intensified when Thaksin left for a trip abroad earlier this month. (He was in New York on Tuesday when the coup occurred, from where he declared a state of emergency.) The coup also comes just one day before the scheduled resumption of anti-Thaksin protests similar to the ones that brought hundreds of thousands of people to Bangkok streets earlier this year. Plumber Somchai Nityomrath had planned to go to Wednesday's rallies but instead showed up at Government House on Tuesday night to lend support to the coup plotters inside. "I came because I'm so happy," he says. "The democratic process has been taken over by Thaksin, so it's time for the people to take back democracy with the military's help."

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