Thai leadership contender defends coup as needed to stop potential violence

Wednesday, September 27th 2006, 6:26 am
By: News On 6

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) _ A leading candidate to become Thailand's interim prime minister said Wednesday that last week's coup ousting an elected government was needed to end divisiveness that could have exploded into violence.

``The most important matter is to build unity in the country,'' said former army commander Surayud Chulanont, a respected retired general and member of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's inner circle of advisers.

Asked by reporters if he would be willing to serve as provisional prime minister until a promised election next year, he said ``I can't say because I have not been approached.''

Earlier, however, he said he would consider any offer ``because I am concerned about the political situation.''

The military, which ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Sept. 19, promised to hand over power to a civilian regime within two weeks and hold a general election by October next year.

Maj. Gen. Thaweep Netniyom, a spokesman for the council, said a temporary constitution would be presented to King Bhumibol for approval ``probably on Saturday evening,'' and the announcement of an interim prime minister would follow, probably on Sunday.

Surayud was a highly respected professional soldier who, after retirement, made it clear he had no political ambitions.

On Tuesday, coup leader and army commander Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin hinted that Surayud could be a possible new leader, saying at a news conference, ``When you say 'civilian prime minister,' you will see that soldiers after they retire can be called civilians.''

But given his background, the appointment might be viewed by the international community as evidence the military wanted to steer the direction of the interim government.

On Tuesday, the military rulers announced they had written a draft of the temporary constitution appointing themselves advisers to any interim government. The indication that they do not plan to withdraw entirely from the political process was condemned by some critics.

Democracy activist Ji Ungpakorn, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University, said any interim government not elected by the people was unacceptable _ whether the person is an ex-soldier or a civilian.

``It doesn't really matter who the prime minister is,'' he said. ``A military-appointed government has no legitimacy.''

The ruling military council already has ordered political parties to halt all activities, warned media not to distribute news that could disturb the peace, and banned public gatherings of more than five people.

Another possible interim leader, former WTO chief Supachai Panitchpakdi, also declined to say whether he would accept the job. Supachai, a respected international civil servant with no military background, would probably receive greater endorsement from foreign governments.

Supachai, who has been at the center of rumors for days that he is a leading candidate, was asked whether he was able to say anything to the people of Thailand about the speculation.

``Not now, maybe later,'' he told The Associated Press in Geneva, where he now heads the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, or UNCTAD.

Meanwhile, arsonists torched four schools Wednesday in a possible act of defiance against the new ruling military council, a military spokesman said. Police and the army were investigating the attacks on schools in Kamphaengphet province, some 190 miles north of the capital Bangkok and a former bastion of support for Thaksin.

``The army has sent a team to investigate the incident and has not yet ruled out the possibility that this was an act of anger from people who lost power,'' said Col. Banyong Sirasunthorn, a military spokesman.