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Coup Puts Thai Military in Control Again After 15 Years

The military is back in power in Thailand after ousting Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless coup Tuesday. The military says the coup was necessary to unite a nation split by months of political turmoil. But the return of the military is being viewed with unease in Thailand, and abroad.

Thailand has experienced 18 coups or coup attempts since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932. The military last seized power in 1991, when General Suchinda Kraprayoon overthrew an elected civilian government.

A year later, Suchinda was kicked out himself following street demonstrations. Since then, democracy has flourished in Thailand, and the military's influence on political affairs has decreased dramatically.

Until Tuesday, that is, when in a surprise move, the army led by General Sondhi Boonyaratglin took over power from embattled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Sondhi told the nation Wednesday that the coup was necessary to unite a nation torn by months of political disputes over Mr. Thaksin and his policies. Sondhi said an interim prime minister would be named in two weeks, and democracy would be restored in a year.

William Case, director of the Southeast Asia Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong, says Mr. Thaksin's policies had alienated many groups in Thailand, opening the way for military intervention.

"We know he certainly he had his problems with the King... We know, too, that large parts of the middle class, especially in Bangkok, has been very resentful over the loss of civil liberties and the clamp-down on the press," he said. "And finally he got the military off side because he had this habit of intervening in the internal promotion process, and trying to get people loyal to him into positions of power, in some cases even his relatives."

Yet even among Mr. Thaksin's opponents, who are largely grouped in the capital, Bangkok, there was unease over the turn of events. People were calm, but a commonly heard sentiment from politicians, analysts and private citizens was, it's good that Thaksin is gone, but a coup is not a good thing.

Reaction from the international community ranged from concern to condemnation. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer called the military takeover "unacceptable." Japan said it was "regrettable." Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said he was "shocked" by the coup. The United States expressed its unease, and said it was monitoring the situation.

Thailand has evolved since the last military government, and Hong Kong City University's Case says the military might not be up to the job of running a modern economy even if it wanted to.

"The Thai economy is a complex and sophisticated one," Case noted, "it's certainly deeply integrated into the global economy and as such is far beyond the capacity of the military to manage."

General Sondhi said Wednesday that Thailand would emerge as a democracy under King Bhumipol Adulyadej as head of state. Sondhi is known to be close to Thailand's revered monarch, and some political analysts in the country interpret the coup as being sanctioned by the king.