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Thai Coup Leader Promises to Hold Elections by October 2007


The Thai army commander who led a coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra says an interim government will be appointed within two weeks and national elections will be held in a year. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, the commander also warned that Mr. Thaksin may face prosecution if he broke any laws.

Thailand's army chief, General Sondhi Boonyaratglin, who led the coup, says he will hand over power to an interim prime minister by early October.

General Sondhi on Wednesday said the coup leaders, known as the Political Reform Council, would stand back after two weeks.

He also pledged that elections would be held in October 2007, after a new constitution is written. The coup leaders revoked the 1997 constitution when they seized power Tuesday night.

Pasuk Pongpaichit, a political economist at Chulalongkorn University, says the outlook for democracy is reasonable.

"The announcement said they have no intention of ruling the country itself and they will return the country to democracy as soon as possible," Pasuk says.

For now, the question is who will be chosen to lead the interim government.

Thepchai Yong, a senior executive editor with The Nationmedia Group, says finding the right person to serve as prime minister is key.

"They need to come up with a prime minister who has credibility and is acceptable to the public," Thepchai says. "I think that's the most important task and they need to tell the public what their agenda - which should include a time frame for a general election."

The bloodless coup ended the Thaksin government after five and a half years. Mr. Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon turned politician was elected prime minister in 2001 and again in 2005. His policies aimed at wooing the poor and rural residents had broad support. However, many urban, middle-class Thais considered him an authoritarian who abused his power.

Mr. Thaksin was in New York when the coup took place.

Sondhi said Mr. Thaksin was welcome to return to Thailand but also warned that members of the previous government may face prosecution over any alleged wrongdoing.

Many countries in the region expressed regret over the coup, which also made investors around Asia nervous. The U.S. State Department said it hopes the Thai people will resolve their political differences according to democracy and the rule of law.

Australia and New Zealand, both with strong trade links to Thailand, expressed disappointment. Canberra said democracy had been "destroyed" while New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark condemned the military takeover.

The military said it launched the coup over concerns of growing disunity. Early this year, tens of thousands of protesters gathered each week to call for the prime minister to step aside over allegations of corruption.

Many Thais feared that rising tensions between Mr. Thaksin's supporters and his critics could lead to a bloody confrontation. Thepchai at Nationmedia says many now hope that with Mr. Thaksin out of power, calm will return.

"Most people I have spoken to express relief that the uncertainty that has permeated politics has been cleared. At least we know the potential for violent confrontation is now over," Thepchai says.

Tuesday night's coup was the first in 15 years and the 18th successful or attempted military takeover since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

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