BANGKOK, Thailand — Thailand’s new military ruler, winning crucial royal backing for his bloodless coup, announced Wednesday that he would not call elections for another year. The United States and other Western nations expressed disapproval and urged a swift restoration of democracy.
Army commander Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, appearing relaxed and confident in his military uniform at his first news conference since seizing power Tuesday night, said he would serve as de facto prime minister for two weeks until the junta — which calls itself the Council of Administrative Reform — chooses a civilian to replace him and drafts an interim constitution.
Sondhi sealed the success of his coup by receiving royal endorsement as leader of the new junta, while ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who watched events unfold from abroad, pondered his future and the threat of possible prosecution at home.
Early Thursday, the coup leader won the support of a rebel leader waging an Islamic insurgency.
Praise from rebel leader
“It is the right thing that the military has taken power,” said Lukman B. Lima, an exiled leader in one of several groups fighting the central government for a separate Muslim state.
“We hope that the political (situation) can be resolved under Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin as the new leader,” Lukman said.
In an e-mailed response to questions from The Associated Press, Lukman said that Sondhi was the “only one who knows the real problems” of the Muslim-dominated provinces of southern Thailand.
Lukman, exiled in Sweden, is vice president of the Pattani United Liberation Organization, or PULO. “We will continue to fight until full independence (is attained) in Pattani,” he said, referring to the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.
Sondhi said he would act as prime minister for two weeks until a new leader is chosen by the Council of Administrative Reform, that an interim constitution would be drafted within that time, and that Thailand’s foreign policy and international agreements would remain unchanged.
Australia called the coup a “great disappointment,” while Japan urged the quick restoration of democracy. The European Union condemned the military takeover, while Washington expressed concern about it. The United States, Britain and other nations also warned their citizens in Thailand to exercise caution.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej appointed Sondhi as head of the council “in order to create peace in the country,” according to an announcement on state-run television.
“All people should remain peaceful and civil servants should listen to orders from Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin from now on,” it said.
Sondhi led a precision takeover overnight without firing a shot, sending soldiers and tanks to guard major intersections and surround government buildings while the popularly elected Thaksin, accused of corruption and undermining democratic institutions, was in New York attending the U.N. General Assembly. Slideshow: Coup in Thailand
Asked at a news conference if there would be moves to confiscate Thaksin’s vast assets, Sondhi said that “those who have committed wrongdoings have to be prosecuted according to the law.” He did not elaborate.
In launching Thailand’s first coup in 15 years, Sondhi said on nationwide television that the overthrow was needed “in order to resolve the conflict and bring back normalcy and harmony among people.”
Sondhi, 59, known to be close to the king, is a Muslim in a Buddhist-dominated nation.
State-run television also said the new leaders had dismissed the state audit commissioners and given additional powers to the auditor general Jaruvan Maintaka to investigative government corruption. Analysts said the move is expected to make it easier for Jaruvan to investigate allegations of corruption involving Thaksin and his ministers and could eventually lead to the confiscation of his assets.
PM Thaksin in London
Thaksin, wearing a dark suit and red tie, put his hands together in a traditional greeting as he left a Thai Airways plane at London’s Gatwick Airport.
British officials said Thaksin’s decision to travel to London had no political significance and noted that he had relatives in Britain.
A British government spokesman said Thaksin had no meetings scheduled with Prime Minister Tony Blair or other officials.
Bangkok, a city of more than 10 million, was calm Wednesday. Most stores were open and residents appeared unfazed, with traffic running as normal and the tanks becoming popular tourist attractions.
About 500 people gathered outside army headquarters to lend moral support to the military, chanting “Thaksin get out!”
But in the first sign of anti-coup sentiment, Thaksin supporters faced off with rival groups celebrating the coup at two separate gatherings in Bangkok.
The council put the country under martial law and declared a provisional authority loyal to the king, seizing television and radio stations and ordering government offices, banks, schools and the stock market to close for the day.
Action shakes financial markets
The unexpected coup rattled Asian financial markets and pressured the Thai baht and other regional currencies, though its economic repercussions remained unclear.
Nearly 20 tanks — their machine gun barrels festooned with ribbons in the royal color of yellow — had blocked off the Royal Palace, Royal Plaza, army headquarters and Thaksin’s office at Government House.
In the afternoon, the tanks began shifting from positions in downtown Bangkok. It was not immediately clear whether the tanks were withdrawing, or merely changing positions. Government public relations officials said they could not immediately comment.
Asked whether there would be moves to confiscate Thaksin’s vast assets, Sondhi said that “those who have committed wrongdoings have to be prosecuted according to the law.”
The Nation newspaper in Bangkok said several senior government officials and others close to Thaksin had been arrested, their fates unknown.
U.S., U.K., U.N. react
The United States urged a quick restoration of democracy, and warned that only then would it be willing to move forward on a free trade pact. The trade deal has been under negotiation for more than two years.
“We’re disappointed in the coup. We hope those who mounted it will make good and make good swiftly on their promises to restore democracy,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said:“It’s not for us to say that he (Thaksin) should be reinstalled. We have called for a return to democratic government.”
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is following with concern developments in Thailand and “appeals for a prompt return to civilian, democratic rule and the holding of new elections as quickly as possible,” his spokesman said in New York.
Other nations weigh in
Australian Prime Minister John Howard described the coup as a “great disappointment,” adding that it was a reminder of an element of Asia’s past he had hoped would not return. “We condemn military coups,” Howard said. “They are a throwback to a past I had hoped Asia had emerged from.”
Japan also called for the quick restoration of democracy in a country where many of its top businesses have factories and affiliates.
The European Union joined condemnation of the coup and said “the military forces stand back and give way to the democratically elected political government.”
China described the coup as “an internal affair of Thailand” and made no public judgment. “The friendly relations between China and Thailand will continue to develop,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.
'Economy fundamentally strong'
The International Monetary Fund, which bailed Thailand and some of its neighbors out of a financial crisis in the late 1990s, was watching the situation but believed the region would be little affected, said the IMF’s chief, Rodrigo de Rato.
“Thailand’s economy is fundamentally strong,” de Rato said.
The U.S. Embassy, in an e-mail to its citizens living in Thailand, said while there had been no reports of violence, Americans should “monitor the situation closely, avoid any large gatherings and exercise discretion when moving about the city.”
Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon before entering politics, handily won three general elections since coming to power in 2001 and garnered great support among the rural poor for his populist policies.
But he alienated the urban middle class, intellectuals and pro-democracy activists. They began mass street demonstrations last year, charging him with abuse of power, corruption and emasculation of democratic institutions, including media that were once among Asia’s freest.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.