She came prepared for a violent protest and ended up staying for a bloodless coup. Charas-sri Kasetkala traveled 12 hours by train from Thailand's southern Songkhla province to join a planned rally last Wednesday designed to pressure caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to step down. In the spring, daily demonstrations by tens of thousands of people in Bangkok had nearly forced the embattled leader out of office. Early last week, the masses wanted to try again, despite rumors that forces loyal to Thaksin might try to break up the protests. Charas-sri's complaints about the billionaire PM were legion. Like many in Thailand, the 50-year-old was disgusted by the administration's alleged corruption and nepotism, exemplified by the tax-free sale of Thaksin's family-business stake to a Singaporean conglomerate for $1.9 billion. But Charas-sri, who brought her young grandson to Bangkok with her, was mostly outraged by the Thai leader's guns-blazing approach in the nation's largely Muslim south, a policy she blamed for the escalating violence that has claimed 1,700 lives since 2004. "I don't want my grandson to grow up in an unfair society," says the Muslim housewife. "People were so scared of Thaksin they had to follow him like buffalo."
But just hours after Charas-sri arrived in the Thai capital last Tuesday, army tanks rolled through monsoon showers into central Bangkok, achieving what months of peaceful protests could not. The country's army chief, Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who earlier this year had declared coups in Thailand "a thing of the past," had wrested control of the nation from Thaksin. The ousted Prime Minister was stranded in New York City, having just wrapped up a speech titled "The Future of Democracy in Asia." Martial law was declared and the constitution scrapped, casting a shadow over Thailand's democratic future. Yet, as soldiers flooded into the Thai capital, the mood turned almost giddy. Women in miniskirts posed for pictures next to tanks, while soldiers lounged in the gun turrets. Not a shot was fired in the country's 18th coup in 74 years. Standing with hundreds of revelers outside Bangkok's army headquarters, Charas-sri cried tears of joy at the demise of "Square Face," as Thaksin has been dubbed by his detractors. "This is a gift from God," said the headscarfed Charas-sri. In a nation where the gap between rural poor and urban rich has only grown more divisive, the diverse crowd beside her was remarkably unified in its elation at Thaksin's removal. "The thing about Thailand is that we execute our coups so pleasantly," says Supavud Saicheua, head of research at Phatra Securities in Bangkok. "There's no stigma attached to coups. They're almost seen as a natural part of the political process."
International reaction to the military takeover, though, wasn't as upbeat. The European Union exhorted the military to "give way to the democratically elected political government," while Australian Prime Minister John Howard deemed the coup "a throwback to a past I had hoped Asia had emerged from." Indeed, 15 years had passed since Thailand's last coup, and the country's young democracy was regarded as a model for its neighbors. Certainly, the putsch leaders, with their neatly pressed uniforms and chestfuls of medals, didn't score points overseas when they followed up a promise to restore power to the people with an indefinite prohibition on political activity, including any gathering of more than five people. Responding to the order, Korn Chatikavanij, the deputy secretary-general of the opposition Democrat Party, canceled an interview with TIME and declined to comment on the nation's political future. The media was also ordered to refrain from reporting anything that could be considered harmful to the coup leaders, who have dubbed themselves the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy (CDR).
The coup had been executed with soldierly precision, but it's the dark side of martial rigor that's provoking concern. "The military may be good at fighting, but it may not be good at administration or governance," says Somchai Homlaor, secretary-general of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development in Bangkok. "We don't want to escape from the tiger only to end up with the crocodile." Governance in Thailand has never been just about the tiger and the crocodile. Unlike in the West, where checks and balances on the abuse of power exist within the democratic system, the corrective mechanism in Thai government has tended to come from outside, usually through military intervention. Refereeing this tug of war between officials and officers is the country's beloved 78-year-old constitutional monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose every whisper is dissected for political meaning and carries the weight of divine mandate. Last Wednesday, he made himself clear, endorsing the new rulers and asking the populace to obey their orders. The night of the coup, Sonthi had already signaled his loyalty to the King by arming his soldiers with yellow ribbonsthe color associated with the monarchthat were tied around the muzzles of their rifles.
Such fealty to the King contrasted with mounting criticism in recent months that Thaksin had burnished his reputation at the monarch's expense. The former Prime Minister's rural-relief programs, for instance, vied for attention with the King's agricultural pet projects. Then, over the summer, Thaksin complained that "a charismatic figure"widely interpreted to be either the King or his top adviser Prem Tinsulanondawas trying to force him out of office. Although Thaksin ranks as the most popular Prime Minister in Thai historyhe was swept into office a record three times courtesy of his rural power basethe Bangkok élite resented what they perceived as a lèse majesté attack. Last week, the six coup leadersfour military chiefs, the national police boss and the head of the National Security Councilwent on to accuse Thaksin of using his position to enrich himself and his supporters; they also claimed he was eroding the very democratic institutions that should have limited his power. Certainly, Thaksin had taken advantage of the country's 1997 constitutionwhich strengthened the executive branch's authorityto fill the electoral commission, courts and other supposedly independent institutions with his associates. Thailand's democratically elected leader also allegedly used his position to pressure journalists, academics and even bankers who released pessimistic economic forecasts.
Careful cultivation of power is hardly unusual for a Thai leader, but Thaksin erred by alienating a competing power structure: the military. Having trained with the army before joining the police and later refashioning himself as an entrepreneur, Thaksin promoted many fellow members of his cadet class to key military positions, leapfrogging more veteran officers. His priority after returning from abroad was to oversee a military reshuffle slated for this month or next; the changes could have sidelined Sonthi and his acolytes before an election later this year that Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party was widely expected to win. The timing of the army putsch may well have hinged on preventing the military reordering, as well as pre-empting violence during Wednesday's scheduled rallies. Two of Thaksin's deputy ministers, who were detained by the CDR late last week, are suspected of planning to bus in pro-Thaksin masses to Bangkok in hopes of engineering a violent confrontation with anti-PM protestors. "We're sorry that it came to a coup," Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva told TIME a day before the ban on political commentary was announced. "But this proves that Thaksin has been destroying the democratic fabric of Thailand."