Embattled Thai Prime Minister Steps Down

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Embattled Thai Prime Minister Suchinda Kraprayoon, who angered the nation when troops brutally shot down unarmed demonstrators last week, resigned in disgrace today.

Appearing on national television, the gaunt-looking former general expressed remorse for the killings and said he hoped the nation would begin to heal itself after his departure.

"I am extremely sorry for the unrest and the confrontation between the government and the people, which caused death and loss of property," Suchinda said in his resignation statement.

At least 40 people were killed and 600 were wounded during four days of protests, which began last Sunday. The demonstrations, organized by pro-democracy groups, sought to force Suchinda, a former armed forces supreme commander, to resign because he was appointed to his job rather than an elected member of Parliament.

The violence was the worst in Thailand since the early 1970s, and brought about a sea change in the attitudes of middle-class Thais toward the military, which has traditionally dominated politics in the country.

The way for Suchinda's resignation was cleared on Saturday, when Thailand's monarch issued a general amnesty to all government officials and military officers involved in ordering the suppression of the demonstrators.

Early today, television broadcast the text of the decree granting amnesty to everyone involved in the demonstrations and those who suppressed them, including "commanders and those commanded." At least 40 people were killed and hundreds wounded.

Although promulgated by the king at the Suchinda government's request, the amnesty must still be approved by Parliament, which may not follow automatically because of widespread public anger at the killings.

There have been widespread calls for trials not only of Suchinda but top army commanders who ordered troops to fire on the protesters.

It became obvious Friday afternoon that Suchinda's days were numbered when the five parties in the governing coalition abandoned support for Suchinda and announced plans to adopt a constitutional amendment requiring a prime minister to be an elected member of Parliament. Suchinda, appointed to the post April 7, was never a member of Parliament and thus would have been disqualified.

For many Thais, Suchinda came to symbolize interference by the Thai military in the country's politics, a state of affairs that has existed most of the time since an absolute monarchy was replaced by constitutional rule 60 years ago.

Although a dominant force in Thai life, the armed forces leadership is known for involvement in the drug trade with Myanmar (formerly Burma) and logging ventures in neighboring countries, not to mention its embarrassingly poor military skills.

Suchinda was considered the mastermind behind a bloodless coup that ousted the last elected government in February, 1991. At that time, he won respect for appointing a caretaker civilian administration that was among the best Thailand has ever seen.

But Suchinda, who spent his life in the armed forces and publicly disdained politicians, misstepped repeatedly in the drafting of a new constitution and plans for a general election.

After promising that he would never seek the prime minister's job, Suchinda orchestrated a provision in the constitution that allowed for appointment of a prime minister from outside the Parliament, a clear indication that he was planning to seek the job.

When the five-party coalition stumbled by offering the job to a politician accused by the United States of involvement in drug dealing, the parties turned to Suchinda, who resigned as armed forces supreme commander to take the post.

Almost immediately, protests by pro-democracy forces began demanding his resignation. The protests intensified when Suchinda named 11 politicians to his Cabinet who had been branded corrupt after the coup.

Suchinda and his colleagues in the armed forces high command evidently underestimated the degree to which the country's growing middle class had become alienated by the military's apparent manipulation of the political process to suit its whims.

Chamlong Srimuang, a former Bangkok governor and devout Buddhist, captured the national mood when he announced a hunger strike to the death unless Suchinda resigned. He later called off his fast, but by then tens of thousands of people were demonstrating daily against the government.

Backed into a corner, Suchinda agreed to amend the constitution. But when members of the coalition began equivocating about whether the change would apply to Suchinda himself, the demonstrations resumed with renewed vigor.

A huge rally last Sunday night turned violent when the demonstrators, led by Chamlong, tried to march on Suchinda's office. Police at first used fire hoses to try to disperse the crowd, but then turned security over to the army, which started opening fire.

Chamlong was arrested Monday, prompting another night of violence, which finally ended Tuesday morning with the army storming a central hotel where demonstrators had taken refuge.

Suchinda announced the government's official casualty figures of 40 dead and 600 injured, but unofficial sources believe the death toll may be as high as 350.

The violence ended Wednesday night when the king decided to intervene in the dispute. Lecturing Suchinda and Chamlong on television, the monarch urged the two men to negotiate a solution to their differences and agree to fast adoption of constitutional reform.

The debate about the amendment is due to begin in Parliament on Monday and is expected to last a month.

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