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Thailand in State of Calm, Despite Military Coup


It is calm today in Thailand's capital, Bangkok, following Tuesday's bloodless military coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The coup leaders promise to turn over power to a civilian caretaker within two weeks, with a new constitution and elections to follow next year.

NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Bangkok.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Fist you depose him and then you discredit him, to prove to the people that the coup was justified. That's the way these things usually work, and Thailand's Council for Democratic Reform is sticking to the script. It's announced the formation of a panel to investigate former Prime Minister Thaksin and his friends for alleged corruption during Thaksin's five year rule. The council has also detained at least four of Thaksin's closest allies. Though one of the military leaders, General Venai Patayakun(ph), insists the men are not under arrest.

General VENAI PATAYAKUN (Thai Military Leader): We see some report that they try to instigate something, so we invited them to have a discussion. We did not detain them like prisoner. We just provide them with all kind of necessities and convenience. You can ask them later on how we treat them.

SULLIVAN: Martial law is still in place, but restrictions on the local media have eased somewhat since Tuesday, though media outlets are still being warned not to air or publish statements or opinions harmful to public order. And public gatherings of more than five people remain banned.

But popular support for the coup, a takeover sanctioned by Thailand's revered king, remains strong for now, and there are hopes the coup may even help end the ongoing conflict in Thailand's three mainly Muslim southern provinces, where a two-year-old separatist insurgency has left some 1,700 people dead.

Mr. PANITAN WATTANAYAGORN (Analyst): The army chief (unintelligible) is quite committed to solving the southern problem.

SULLIVAN: Analyst Panitan Wattanaygorn says Army Chief Sonthi Boonyaratglin understands the problem in the south better than most. The coup leader is the first Muslim ever to lead the army in this overwhelmingly Buddhist nation, and is known to favor a southern policy of negotiation, not confrontation.

Mr. WATTANAYAGORN: I think ex-Prime Minister Thaksin's approach was quite nationalistic, emphasizing the use of force, direct control from Bangkok, not addressing cultural and other differences as much as it should be. But I think that will be readjusted.

SULLIVAN: Simmons College terrorism expert Zachary Abuza also thinks General Sonthi will do better.

Mr. ZACHARY ABUZA (Simmons College): I think he can win considerable hearts and minds of the people.

SULLIVAN: Abuza has been studying the conflict in the south since it began. Deposed Prime Minister Thaksin, he says, ignored the recent recommendations of his own National Reconciliation Council, urging moderation and mediation. General Sonthi, Abuza says, won't.

Mr. ABUZA: He's willing to implement key findings of the National Reconciliation Council. That's essential, especially in that there's so much distrust towards the government and so much animosity amongst the Muslim population, and this is key. The military right now has very limited human intelligence networks, and they're never going to be able to rebuild those until they start to regain the trust of the people. And Sonthi can do it.

SULLIVAN: Rebuilding trust among the people won't bring an end to the violence, Abuza warns. The insurgency is neither centralized nor coordinated, and the groups involved aren't necessarily interested in the same goals. And if General Sonthi makes good on his pledge to step aside in two weeks' time, there's no guarantee the leader who replaces him will favor Sonthi's carrot or former Prime Minister Thaksin's stick.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.