Thai coup leader takes control, calm ensues

Israelis seek shelter with Chabad after military takes power.

September 20, 2006 23:08
3 minute read.
Thai coup leader takes control, calm ensues

thai coup 298.88. (photo credit: AP)


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While Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was in New York for the UN General Assembly, Army Commander-in-Chief Sondhi Boonyaratklin coordinated a bloodless, well orchestrated military coup. In statewide TV broadcasts Wednesday, Sondhi announced that he had appointed himself temporary prime minister for the next two weeks until a replacement could be found. The constitutional monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, has endorsed Sondhi as the leader of the governing council, imploring citizens to stay calm and listen to orders from Sondhi. Thaksin is reportedly en route to London. "We have to accept what happened, we are not coming back soon," said Thaksin's official spokesperson, who is traveling with the contested prime minister. Sondhi insinuated that the fallen leader may be prosecuted for wrongdoing. He said a new constitution would be drafted within the next two weeks and general elections would be held in October 2007. Sondhi also said the interim government would not hold power for more than a year. He reaffirmed to the people of Thailand that "we don't have any intention to rule the country and will return power to the Thai people as soon as possible." Rumors abound as to who will be appointed to fill the post. One favorite, Central Bank head Pridiyathorn Devakula, has publicly denied being approached to fill the position. He said the coup had been accepted by the public and it was unlikely to have much impact on foreign confidence in the country. The coup comes after months of protests calling for Thaksin's resignation amid allegations of corruption and a worsening Muslim insurgency in the South. Sondhi said the goals of the coup were "to resolve the conflict and bring back normalcy and harmony among people." He said the coup was intended to end intensifying conflicts in Thai society, corruption in government, insults to Bhumibol and attempts by Thaksin to destroy democratic institutions. Even in light of local public support for the coup and relative calm in the streets of Bangkok, the instability has prompted many foreign governments, including Britain and the US, to issue travel warnings to the region. The Foreign Ministry has not warned Israelis against traveling to Thailand nor has it instructed Israelis already there to leave. There are an estimated 6,000-8,000 Israeli tourists currently in the area. "People keep on traveling, they are not leaving because of what is happening," said Vered Mei-Zahav, 26, of Givat Shmuel, who is currently in Bangkok. "We are not really feeling the stress," she said. "I even went to the center of town to see what was happening. Except for seeing some soldiers, there was nothing more than that." As more than a dozen tanks were encircling Thailand's Parliament building, hundreds of Israeli backpackers were seeking shelter in the local Chabad House. The four-story establishment on Khao San Road - Bangkok's famous backpacker district popular with young Israelis - generally pulls down its shutters after 10 p.m. On Tuesday, though, it stayed open well into the night. Hearing rumors of an impending coup in the late afternoon, Rabbi Nehemya Wilhelm began warning Jews and Israelis to stay off the streets. At approximately 7 p.m., "a Singaporean friend called to tell me that a large convoy of tanks and armored vehicles was heading toward Bangkok," Wilhelm said. No sooner did CNN and BBC start broadcasting pictures of the unfolding military takeover in Bangkok, than frantic parents in Israel began calling the Chabad House on Khao San Road. "Interestingly, they seemed to know more about the situation back in Israel than we did in Bangkok," Wilhelm said. By midnight, the normally rowdy backpacker strip was deserted, with bars and restaurants closed. Inside Chabad House, dozens of Israelis were searching the Internet for international news of the situation unfolding only a few kilometers away. "It's ironic that we should come all this way from tanks and guns in Israel only to end up in this craziness," said Uri, 24, from Tel Aviv. He then typed an e-mail to reassure friends and relatives back home that he was safe. Rabbi Yosef Kantor, the director of Chabad in Thailand, said, "Israelis are not leaving. It takes more than tanks in the street for them to leave." He said Chabad runs programs for Jews in Thailand year-round, especially during the holidays, adding: "The only effect [of the coup] we are seeing is that people are clinging more to the Chabad house." "Outside, things are calm... people are not terribly stressed by the situation," Kantor said. JTA contributed to this report.

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