Sonthi outsmarted Thaksin at the eleventh hour
Had Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy (CDRM) leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin not moved as fast as he did to stage a coup on Tuesday, Thaksin Shinawatra would have launched his own coup a day later. Don't be fooled by Thaksin's claim that he stands for democracy.
As the political crisis developed to the point of no return concerning whether Thaksin should stay or be booted out, General Sonthi had no choice but to swallow his words about the days of military coups being over. He had been very reluctant to resort to a coup, as he was known not to have any political ambitions. Moreover, he was not known to be an enemy of Thaksin. Although General Sonthi has a good relationship with both Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda and Privy Council member General Surayuth Chulanont, he came to power partly due to a political compromise struck with Thaksin.
However, an intelligence report reached General Sonthi's camp stating that there would be bloodshed on Wednesday. The People's Alliance for Democracy had planned to hold a political rally that day at the Royal Plaza in order to force Thaksin out of politics. Had that rally taken place, there would have been clashes between the People's Alliance for Democracy and Thaksin's supporters and blood would have been spilt on Rajdamnoen Avenue. If only Thaksin had promised that he would take a break from politics and allow a period of political reforms to take place, the PAD and other branches of the anti-Thaksin movement would have declared victory. All political confrontations would have subsided. Thaksin could have run for office once the Constitution was amended, and he would have been returned to the premier's post, probably in the latter part of next year.
However, Thaksin never considered taking a break from power. Again, don't be fooled by his "taking a break" story - the idea never crossed his mind.
The General Sonthi camp learned that during the PAD rally, Yongyuth Tiyapairat and Newin Chidchob were planning to rally their supporters to create an ugly scene at the Royal Plaza. During the ensuing commotion, there would be human casualties. Thaksin would then have stepped in and declared a state of emergency, placing the country under martial law.
Now you can understand why he had time to prepare his state of emergency statement and read it at 9.20pm on Channel 9 from his New York hotel room. You can also understand why Yongyuth and Newin are now at the top of this country's most-wanted list and have surrendered themselves to the CDRM for interrogation.
Once the situation was under his complete control, Thaksin had planned to fly back yesterday in order to declare victory over anti-democratic elements in society. He had a military reshuffle list in hand that would have further consolidated his control over the military. With that accomplished, everything would have been easy. Virtually all institutions in the country would have been under his directive.
From his New York hotel, Thaksin was preparing to deliver an address at the UN Assembly. The room instead turned out to be the headquarters from which he attempted to launch a counter-coup and negotiate a political settlement. In New York, he planned to recruit top-notch American political consultants to advise him on his political campaign for the next election, which would have been pushed back from October 15 to some time in November.
Thaksin's talk of taking a break from politics was simply lip service. He told the Thai public he would decide whether to take a break from politics only after his Thai Rak Thai went to the Election Commission to register as candidates. This means Thaksin would have liked His Majesty the King to endorse a new election date before he made his decision.
Members of the Thai elite and the PAD, however, would not allow this to happen. If Thaksin were to run in the next election, he would have won. With 12 million votes or so, he would have claimed a democratic majority and he also would have stayed on as prime minister. After that he could rewrite Thai history by turning Thailand into his own regime.
General Sonthi had to act fast to head off Thaksin's coup. He staged a military coup on Tuesday, a day before the bloodshed was set to take place. He and Thaksin did have a telephone conversation on Tuesday evening, with Thaksin trying to buy time and negotiate a settlement.
He told General Sonthi that if he kept his cool, Thaksin would take a break from politics. He asked Sonthi to wait until he returned from New York so that the two could talk things out and said that he would reschedule his return flight to Bangkok to Wednesday, instead of yesterday as he had planned.
General Sonthi was polite, but told him that he had no choice, that he had to stage the coup.
In the meantime, Thaksin was checking on his military allies, who had control of Bangkok, for the most part. He remained certain that in a military power play, he could still emerge the victor. Maj-General Prin Suwannathat, commander of the First Infantry Brigade, is a close ally of Thaksin and he holds the most powerful military post in Bangkok. The commanders of the Air Force and the Navy are also good friends of Thaksin.
General Sonthi had the support of Lt-General Saphrang Kalayanamit of the Third Army, who had been outspoken in his anti-Thaksin remarks. The Third Army is in charge of all military operations in the North. Another key ally of Gen Sonthi is Lt-General Anupong Phaochinda of the First Infantry Division in Bangkok. Maj-General Sanit Prommas, the commander of the Second Cavalry Brigade, also came to play an important role in the power play to seize the capital.
Troops from Prachin Buri and Lop Buri were also mobilised to the capital to assist in the coup, the decisive outcome of which was ironically the victory of thaharn ban nok (upcountry military).
As it turned out, all of Thaksin's military allies, most notably Maj-General Prin, had been marked out - they could not move. General Ruengroj Mahasaranont, the supreme commander and a Thaksin ally, was to look after Bangkok once Thaksin had declared martial law. He too was subdued. Chidchai Vanasatidya and Prommin Lertsuridej were unable to launch any sort of counter effort.
Thaksin's wife Khunying Pojaman Shinawatra was supposed to take a 12am flight to Singapore on Tuesday night. She quickly changed her flight to 9pm. Well, Gen Sonthi had to let her off the hook.
Twenty-five minutes later, knowing that his wife was safely on an aircraft bound for Singapore, Thaksin read out his state of emergency address from his New York hotel room, effectively sacking General Sonthi .
But an hour later, General Sonthi declared a counter-coup to overthrow the Thaksin regime and tear up the Constitution.
The rest is history.