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.

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The Prime Minister had been voted to power in three landslide elections, most recently in April. But that vote was invalidated after opposition parties boycotted it. Thaksin's popularity in urban areas—he remains well-liked among rural poor—began to wane early this year after the tax-free sale of his family's telecom firm, Shin Corp, for $1.9 billion, a transaction that was regarded by some as an abuse of power. He has also been criticized for filling many government positions with his supporters. The military, too, has been stacked with Thaksin appointees, including his family members, according to top defense analyst Panitan Wattanayagorn. One of Thaksin's duties after returning from abroad was to sign off on a major military reshuffle that could have demoted more members of Gen. Sondhi's anti-Thaksin faction.

Whether the coup will, in fact, end Thaksin's tenure isn't yet clear. Nor is it certain whether democracy will follow the military maneuver. In the 1970s and 1980s, Thailand experienced nearly a dozen coups, which hardly helped nurture democracy. "The success of this coup will hinge on whether the military can quickly name a new caretaker leader and show that they are committed to democratic governance," says Panitan.

For now, the coup plotters must first make sure that Thaksin loyalists within the military don't stage a counter-coup. "The threat of violence is still very real," warns Panitan. Such military intrigue, though, was lost on the sunburned tourists who were driving by Government House in the back of tuk-tuks, as the local automated trishaws are called. "What's going on?" asked one English-speaking passerby with large tattoos on his shoulders, as he glanced at four soldiers lounging on a tank. "Is it a party?" Who knows how long the festive mood on Bangkok streets will last.

—with reporting by Robert Horn/Bangkok

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