New Thailand leader postpones elections

BANGKOK – Thailand’s new military ruler, winning crucial royal backing for his bloodless coup, announced yesterday that he would not call elections for another year. The U.S. and other Western nations expressed disapproval and urged a swift restoration of democracy.

Army commander Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, appearing relaxed and confident in his military uniform at his first news conference since seizing power Tuesday night, said he would serve as de facto prime minister for two weeks until the junta – which calls itself the Council of Administrative Reform – chooses a replacement and drafts an interim constitution.

Sondhi sealed the success of his coup by receiving royal endorsement as leader of the new junta, while ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who watched events unfold from abroad, pondered his future and the threat of possible prosecution at home.

Receiving the imprimatur of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej legitimizes the takeover, and should effectively squash any efforts at resistance by Thaksin’s partisans. Thaksin’s ouster followed a series of missteps that prompted many to accuse the prime minister of challenging the king’s authority – an unpardonable act in this traditional Southeast Asian nation that is a popular vacation destination for Westerners.

There appeared to be a sense of relief among many Thais at the resolution of political tensions that had hung over the nation since the beginning of the year, when street demonstrations demanding Thaksin step down for alleged corruption and abuse of power gained momentum. Thailand has had no working legislature and only a caretaker government since February, when Thaksin dissolved parliament to hold new elections in an effort to reaffirm his mandate.

The presence of tanks and armed soldiers on the streets of Bangkok, a city of more than 10 million, was taken with good humor in an almost holiday atmosphere. Schools, government offices and the stock market were closed yesterday but were to reopen today.

There was also hope that a new regime could more effectively address an Islamic insurgency in the south that has resulted in more than 1,700 deaths in the last two years.

Sondhi, a 59-year-old Muslim in a predominantly Buddhist country, had proposed several weeks ago opening talks with the separatists, but Thaksin’s government vehemently opposed such a move.