Sonthi told Thaksin he would stage a coup
For the first time, general reveals the inside story of how the regime was toppled
General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, left, chairman of the Council for National Security, plays in a friendly football match between the Defence Ministry and the former national soccer team at Army Headquarters yesterday. He was joined by former Thai Rak Thai Pa
At last, the story behind that unique part of the "first announcement" by the September 19 coup leaders - "We are sorry for the inconvenience"- can be told.
Aside from the need to pacify a stunned public, it owed as much to one of General Sonthi Boonyaratglin's personal habits. "It's in my nature to apologise to people - my tennis partners, even my subordinates - for even tiny little things," the head of the Council for National Security told Nation Group editors in an exclusive interview on Tuesday.
The light-hearted revelation led to more serious ones: He drafted most of the coup announcements by himself, starting early in the afternoon of that fateful day. When most drafts were ready, he became worried about their legal aspects and someone recommended Meechai Ruchuphan, who was immediately contacted and picked up from his home that night to help.
"It was the first time I talked to him," Sonthi said of the man who was elected president of the interim National Legislative Assembly on the day of the interview.
Sonthi said he prepared the drafts himself so that "nobody else would know what we were up to".
The coup was plotted and carried out by eight key men, including Sonthi. It was originally intended to take place on September 20 because, with another major anti-Thaksin rally planned for that day, the collaborators could repeat the "Portuguese example", in which military mutiny and anti-government uprising complement each other.
But having considered risk factors, the plan was moved up to September 19, when Thaksin was still in New York.
According to Sonthi, only four top commanders knew the entire picture of the plan. But the other four executed their jobs well.
"Each of us took care of our own piece of the jigsaw, which fell into place nicely at the end," he said. One significant piece of the jigsaw was the role of the Special Forces from Lop Buri who provided the coup leaders with much-needed combat experience, loyalty and allegiance.
"Faith and trust among men at arms doesn't come easily. It goes back a long time," he said. His words may have carried a hint of scorn for Thaksin Shinawatra, whose "close ties with Class 10" failed to produce significant resistance to the coup.
The provincial troops were told to move into the capital at midnight on September 19, to avoid traffic complications. But at 8pm, even men on the street were talking about an imminent coup. "We couldn't cope with the news leaks, so I decided to move up the schedule," he said.
In the early evening, Sonthi was in contact with the national police to ensure major units stayed put and cooperated with the coup leaders.
Contrary to what many believed, Sonthi said the coup was not an urgent measure mooted just a couple of days earlier. However, he was adamant the Thaksin camp was also scheming to create violence on September 20, so as to enforce a State of Emergency.
"The State of Emergency would have given the government a pretext to remove me because I wouldn't have obeyed any order to use force against Thai people," he said.
During the two-hour interview, the CNS chief revealed tales of mistrust between him and the former prime minister. The general disclosed that during their recent visit to Burma, shortly before the coup, he had instructed his men to sneak a gun into the C-130 plane so, if the need arose, he could protect himself.
Asked what made him do that and what he thought Thaksin was plotting, Sonthi said: "I don't know. I was just being alert. On the plane, I sat near the entrance to the cockpit, where I could know quickly if something was about to happen. I had been told to wear my uniform but I wore a suit which better covered what I wanted to cover."
The level of Thaksin's trust in Sonthi must have been similarly low. After all, according to Sonthi, the ousted prime minister was given clear warnings of what was coming, long before the coup.
The CNS head recalled a time when Thaksin was regularly tongue-in-cheek about transferring top commanders to the Prime Minister's Office. It was then that he asked Sonthi: "Will you stage a coup?" Thaksin was taken aback when Sonthi replied: "I will."
Sonthi did not elaborate on the exchange, which took place during Thaksin's lunch with armed forces' leaders at Air Force headquarters. But, apparently, Thaksin was less than pleased with reponses from the other top commanders, as well.
The embattled prime minister sparked a public controversy afterwards by claiming an "influential figure beyond the scope of the Constitution" was plotting to overthrow him. At the same time, military sources said he had further alienated himself from the armed forces with certain "highly controversial" remarks.
Sonthi said it was then that Thaksin asked him again whether he was plotting to overthrow him.
"I told him my answer remained the same," Sonthi said.