Junta Frees Deposed Leader of Thailand : Coup: Former Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan is shown on TV with the country's new rulers. 'I have washed my hands of politics,' he says.


Deposed Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan was released from detention Saturday, two weeks after being overthrown in a bloodless military coup.

The 71-year-old former prime minister, known for his trademark quip "no problem," appeared as jaunty as ever when he was shown on television having breakfast with the head of Thailand's military junta, Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong, and the newly appointed civilian prime minister, Anand Panyarachun.

"I have washed my hands of politics," Chatichai was quoted as saying. "It is time to quit."

Other members of Chatichai's entourage, including former Deputy Prime Minister Arthit Kamlang-ek, were also set free. It was widely believed that Chatichai's decision to appoint Arthit as assistant defense minister, with political control of the military, touched off the coup on Feb. 23 after months of tensions.

The release of Chatichai and his associates had been demanded by human rights organizations and by the U.S. government, which cut off $16 million in military and development assistance to Thailand after the coup.

The military junta had said the release of Chatichai was awaiting the completion of the new government, which was finally appointed by the king on Wednesday and held its first Cabinet session on Friday.

While military figures were appointed to the sensitive jobs of defense minister and interior minister, the remainder of government jobs were filled by experienced civil servants and academics, whose appointments drew widespread praise from foreign experts.

International acceptance of the new regime has been so quick that U.S. Ambassador Daniel O'Donohue met publicly with Foreign Minister Arsa Sarasin on Friday and gave the new government about $25,000, despite the aid ban, to help victims of a recent fire. He was quoted as expressing satisfaction with the composition of the new Cabinet.

When it seized power two weeks ago, the military junta created concern abroad by imposing martial law, dissolving the elected Parliament and annuling the constitution.

Since then it has drawn up a timetable for holding new elections and forming a National Assembly to write a new constitution before the vote, which must be held within 14 months.

While Chatichai and his political allies were released from detention at the air force headquarters, their financial assets have been frozen by the government pending the outcome of a commission's inquiry into corruption in the government. Illegally obtained assets would be seized, the new government said.

The military has said that rampant corruption in the Chatichai government was the main reason for the coup. But foreign political analysts have said that while the charges of corruption were undeniably true, the military had primarily rebelled against being placed under civilian control for the first time.

The coup which overthrew Chatichai was the 17th attempted military takeover in 58 years.

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