Sonthi systematically sacked the prime minister, dismissed parliament, suspended the constitution and declared martial law. He removed the prime minister to prevent the country from disintegrating, he told the nation in a televised broadcast later.
Not a shot was fired during the operation. "It was a peculiarly Thai affair -- a silk revolution," a source close to the army said on condition of anonymity. Analysts believe the move was orchestrated by senior officials close to the palace.
"The army generals would not have moved so decisively if they did not think they had the approval of the king," former senator Kraisak Choonhaven told IPS in an interview. But many political analysts believe it is unlikely that the king actually sanctioned the coup. He has remained above the country's political bickering and repeatedly insisted that Thailand's political stalemate had to be resolved constitutionally.
"We have seized power because the caretaker prime minister has caused an unprecedented rift in society, widespread corruption and nepotism, and interfered with the country's independent agencies, crippling them so that they could not longer function properly," Sonthi said in his address.
Now an interim civilian administration is to be set up within the next two weeks to run the country until fresh elections are held in about a year's time. A program of comprehensive political reform is to be initiated and the constitution redrafted to strengthen the country's democratic institutions, the general promized.
A day after the coup, Bangkok is calm and shows little sign of the momentous events of the night before. Small groups of soldiers are patrolling around the city to ensure there is no breakdown of law and order. Shops were open and public transport was running normally. But schools, banks and the stock exchange were closed on the orders of Sonthi, who declared the day a national holiday.
The mood on the streets of Bangkok was subdued, while the implications of the coup were being quietly discussed, even by the city's hawkers.
Thaksin remains popular with the poor who feel he has tried to improve their lot with a 30 baht (less than one U.S. dollar) health scheme, the injection of funds into the villages and the suspension of farmers' debts. But even they were reluctant to continue to champion him in the face of Sonthi's decisive move.
"Perhaps he has gone too far and was starting to be a threat to the country's stability," said Rung, a young, single mother who was full of praise for Thaksin's health care scheme.
Many of the rank-and-file opponents of Thaksin were clearly jubilant with the new political twist. "It's very exciting, someone had to do something to end this impasse," said computer science student from Chulalongkorn University, Somchai (second name withheld). "General Sonthi has done the right thing," he said.
"I never support coups, but this one was almost inevitable," said former senator Kraisak, whose father Chatichai Choonavan was toppled as prime minister in Thailand's last coup in 1991. "It's one step back to allow two steps forward," he mused.
Many of the students at the country's prestigious Chulalongkorn University were of the same mind. "It may have been an authoritarian, unconstitutional and undemocratic move, but Thailand will emerge stronger out of this and its democratic institutions will strengthen in the long run," said Wipat, an economics student.
Almost all Thais hope that this coup will be unlike any other coup, in a country that has already gone through 17 of them. "This coup will be different from all previous coups as something good will emerge from it," said political science student Kittipong.
The circumstances around this coup are certainly exceptional. Although the army chief moved against the democratically elected government, it was on the basis that Thaksin had become a dictator and was ruining the country through encouraging and promoting rampant corruption.
For months it has been clear that the political turmoil in Thailand was fundamentally about democracy. Thaksin had interpreted the political movement against him as a threat to democracy. "Key democratic institutions, such as elections and the observance of constitutional limitations on government, have been repeatedly undermined," he wrote to Bush several months ago, explaining Thailand's political problems.
His critics, of course, argue that since his original electoral landslide victory, five years ago, he has usurped democracy and the constitution and left those who oppose him with no alternative but to take to the streets to vent their feelings and protect the constitution.
"It is not true that Thaksin represents genuine democracy and overthrowing him in the street is unacceptable," said senior political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, Titinan Pongsudhirak. "Just because you have someone coming along and winning elections is not tantamount to having democratic rule," he said.
Thaksin has used his two major election victories -- in 2001 and again in 2005 -- as a rationale for ruling without regard for the opposition and sweeping aside any criticism. "He has become a populist dictator using the 19 million votes he got as justification for his absolute rule," Titinan told IPS before the coup. "He is far more authoritarian than any previous military dictatorships before him," he said.
Most of Thailand's academics and intellectuals have insisted in recent months that although undeniably popular with segments of the Thai electorate, Thaksin posed a major threat to country's democratic system.
"Thaksin says he plays by the rules, but he is the one who broke the rules most of the time," said Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior editor with the English language daily newspaper, The Nation. "I think democracy means a lot of things -- not just votes. It means checks and balances, it means transparency, it means how you use powers, it means you are accountable as a leader," he said.
While the army chief has intervened, it remains to be seen whether the military can help strengthen Thailand's democratic institutions. What is certain is that Thailand's economic development and stability now depends on a speedy return to democratic and civilian rule.
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Albion Monitor September
20, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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