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Thai Military Seizes Power in Bloodless Coup

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thailand’s military Saturday ousted the country’s civilian government, suspended the constitution and imposed martial law in a coup that could undermine one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies.

Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan, a former army general who was the nation’s first elected prime minister in 12 years, reportedly was taken from a military plane at gunpoint as he was about to leave a Bangkok airfield on a flight to attend the swearing-in of his new deputy defense minister. Other members of Chatichai’s Cabinet also were detained.

The coup was carried out without apparent bloodshed and the capital showed little evidence of military activity. Weekend shoppers jammed downtown streets and malls as usual.

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Troops in armored cars surrounded the buildings of Radio Thailand and the government-controlled television station. On the rival military station, an officer read a series of communiques from the new government, which is headed by Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong, the supreme commander of the Thai military. The first communique ordered the public to “stay calm and avoid panic.”

The United States condemned the coup and suspended aid to Thailand totaling $16.4 million, leaving in place only the $4 million in aid used to combat the narcotics trade.

The State Department issued a statement saying: “The United States strongly supports constitutional rule and deeply regrets the overthrow of Thailand’s democratically elected government.” It said the approximately 10,000 Americans in Thailand appeared to be in no danger.

Gen. Sunthorn appeared on television to say grimly that the country would now be governed by the National Peace and Order-Keeping Party. He was joined by the commanders of the army, navy, air force and police, and by the deputy army commander.

A communique said the military had a series of major grievances against the Chatichai government, and put rampant corruption at the top of the list. It charged that Chatichai was persecuting senior civil servants and trying to destroy military institutions.

But the communique, which also closed Parliament and imposed martial law, made clear that the military remains loyal to Thailand’s revered king and queen.

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Thailand has been coup-prone since revolution gave the nation a constitutional monarchy in 1932. In the 59 years since, the nation has endured 17 attempted or successful military moves against the government.

But since Chatichai’s government took office in July, 1988, the country has been widely praised for making the transition to elected, civilian rule despite the often stormy encounters between the government and the military’s leaders.

Thanks in part to its record of political stability, Thailand has attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment from the United States, Taiwan and Japan, fueling a boom economy that has grown 10% for each of the last three years--the fastest growth in the world. Economists had long expected Thailand, with a population of about 54 million, to become the fifth export-driven “dragon” of Asia, along with Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea.

Despite the new military regime’s promises to honor all of Thailand’s international commitments, the coup creates uncertainty that political observers believe could deter new foreign investment, much as a series of coup attempts have hurt the Philippine economy in recent years. The Thai economy already has been severely hurt by the Gulf War because tourism, the largest foreign exchange earner in the country, is collapsing because of nervousness about terrorism.

The generals said they would meet with bankers and labor leaders Monday to explain their actions.

The Chatichai government has been sparring with the military for the last year, when Chatichai persuaded then-armed forces supreme commander Gen. Chavalit Yonchaiyudh to retire and join his government as deputy defense minister. Within weeks, a junior member of the government was accusing Chavalit of corruption, eventually forcing Chavalit to resign and prompting him to set up a rival political party.

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At one point last December, Chatichai actually resigned under pressure from the military, but he was immediately reinstated.

He reportedly angered the military Wednesday by appointing Arthit Kamlangek, a deputy prime minister, as deputy defense minister. Arthit is considered an adversary of the military leadership and his appointment was seen as a political check on the influence of the armed forces commanders.

Chatichai was reportedly about to fly to the northern city of Chiang Mai for Arthit’s swearing-in when he was arrested by the air force officers.

The latest crisis also appears to have been prompted by a complex web of allegations stemming from a mysterious assassination plot in 1982 that purportedly was directed at a member of the royal family, as well as at then-Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanond.

Leaflets that circulated in Bangkok recently charged that Chatichai’s son Kraisak, who is one of the prime minister’s key advisers, and Chatichai’s military aide Manoon Roopkachkorn were the masterminds behind the assassination plot, a charge they both vehemently denied.

The Chatichai government had also played a crucial role in opening up to the Cambodian government in Phnom Penh at a time when the Thai military was still supporting the coalition of resistance groups that include the hated Khmer Rouge.

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It is unclear how the coup will affect the continuing Cambodian peace negotiations, but the government of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has clearly lost an influential supporter.

Most of the country’s senior military and political leaders were trained in the United States as officers, thus assuring that Thailand’s traditionally close ties with Washington will continue.

THAILAND AT A GLANCE

A military overthrow of Thailand’s elected government Saturday imposed martial law. Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej remains on the throne. Some facts and figures about Thailand: * GEOGRAPHY--The Southeast Asian nation can be divided into four regions: the mountainous north, the semiarid northeast, the fertile central plain and the southern peninsula. The capital, Bangkok, is in the center. Thailand borders Myanmar to the north, Laos and Cambodia to the northeast and Malaysia to the south.

* PEOPLE--Thailand has 54 million people in a territory as large as France. Major ethnic minorities include Chinese and Indians. About 95% of the people are Buddhists.

* ECONOMY--Thailand is an agricultural country, with more than 80% of the population engaged in farming. Its annual growth rate has averaged more than 10% since 1987, boosted by tourism, industrialization and an export-oriented economy. Major exports include rice, maize, textiles and rubber.

* HISTORY--The only part of Southeast Asia not colonized by the West, Thailand had an absolute monarchy until a revolution in 1932. Since then, the role of the constitutional monarch has been limited, although the highly revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej still retains influence in the powerful army and parliamentary government. Since 1932, Thai history has seen more than a dozen coups or coup attempts, the last one crushed in September, 1985.

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* GOVERNMENT--Thailand’s constitutional monarch, who also serves as head of state, governs with a popularly elected house. The prime minister had led a coalition government dominated by major political parties.

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