NEAL CONAN, host:
It appears a military coup is underway in Thailand. The siege began late last night in Bangkok, where it's early morning now. Tanks surrounded the government offices of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the military declared martial law. Developments are moving quickly on this story, so let's go to Bangkok for the latest. Nirmal Ghosh joins us now by phone. He's the Thailand correspondent for the Southeast Asian newspaper The Straits Times, and thanks for being with us at such an early hour where you are.
Mr. NIRMAL GHOSH (Thailand Correspondent, The Straits Times): No problem, yes.
CONAN: Can you tell us what's happening in Bangkok right now?
Mr. GHOSH: Well, apparently the Thaksin administration got wind of an anti-Thaksin coup attempt. The prime minister, speaking from New York, tried to pre-empt it by firing his army chief and declaring a state of emergency. But the army was moving simultaneously and took over TV stations and radio stations, took over government house, put some tanks on the streets around government house - apparently arrested some ministers - we're not sure who - and then had a statement read out from television saying: we are in charge; here has been no resistance; we control Bangkok and the surrounds - and they are going to suspend the constitution. They have set up a council. They are going to reform the - going for political reforms and then hold an election at the end of it.
CONAN: Prime Minister Thaksin was in New York from the U.N. General Assembly debate - announced that he would be returning home earlier than expected. Is he going to be able to land at the airport in Bangkok?
Mr. GHOSH: That's up in the air at the moment, I'm afraid. No one really knows what's going to happen because Thaksin does have a lot of support, and I don't think tonight is going to be the end of it. Although the anti-Thaksin loyalists, clearly with the backing of the Privy Council and the Palace, are definitely in control tonight. Things could change.
CONAN: The Privy Council and the Palace - tell us about the royal family's involvement in this.
Mr. GHOSH: Well, the royal family would not be directly involved, but General Sonthi, the army chief who was basically behind the coup, in his statement said that he has done this "for the sake of the country, for peace and for our beloved king" quote-unquote. So clearly they are implying that they have the tacit approval of the Privy Council, who are the king's closest circle of advisors. The king himself would not show any bias or make any statement. He wouldn't get involved in this at all.
CONAN: So that this implies royal sanction but without the actual commitment of the king himself.
Mr. GHOSH: Yes. It implies exactly that, but we'll have to wait to see what the king actually says, if anything.
CONAN: Have there been any messages on radio and television that might indicate what's going on?
Mr. GHOSH: No, nothing at all. In fact, they've blocked BBC and CNN and other foreign broadcasts. They are replaying footage of the king and the royal family and playing patriotic songs and songs in praise of the king, and occasionally interrupted by the army statements. They've suspended all movement of troops anywhere in the country, and as you said earlier, they've declared martial law.
CONAN: Nirmal Ghosh of the Straits Times with us on the line from Bangkok. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Mr. GHOSH: Thanks.
CONAN: No, we have a little bit more to go, if you wouldn't mind bearing with us just a little bit.
Mr. GHOSH: Sure.
CONAN: You talked about the support for Prime Minister Thaksin. He has been unpopular of late. He's been described as struggling to remain in power - in fact, said that he would resign after elections.
Mr. GHOSH: Yes, in fact he's been - he has been the most powerful prime minister, in terms of the popular vote, that Thailand has ever had. But what happened was Thaksin monopolized economic and political power to such a great extent that he replaced old, traditional power networks - the military, bureaucratic, and intellectual elite - from Bangkok who has run this country for generations. And he replaced that structure with one of his own. So he clipped their space, and this is a deep power game to stop him. And it succeeded in shaking his hold, so he had to dissolve Parliament, hold elections - which were boycotted - and the election was later discredited and annulled by the courts. So yes, he's been struggling for his political survival.
CONAN: And there are questions that trouble people. As recently as I think 14 years ago, back in 1992, here was another coup against another government in Bangkok that turned out to be rather bloody.
Mr. GHOSH: Yes. There's been a lot of concern that the current political crisis, which has dragged on for almost 10 months now, will turn violent. And this is one of the reasons cited, in fact, by General Sonthi tonight, when he took power. And it just shows analysts that Thailand, having been run by a military government for many years of its modern existence, the military is still very much a factor.
CONAN: This coup was staged in the middle of the night there in Thailand. I guess a lot of people are going to have questions about what happens when people wake up and see what's going on.
Mr. GHOSH: Yes, absolutely. But not quite in the middle of the night. It was a little earlier than that. The action started around nine p.m., so most people are already aware of what's going on. In fact, the phone lines were jammed. The rumors were swelling around ahead of time, as well. So I think most of the city is awake and watching.
CONAN: And you mentioned that outside broadcasts from the BBC, CNN, and the like have been cut off. You're obviously still able to call out from Bangkok, and I assume people are still able to reach the Internet and find out news.
Mr. GHOSH: Yes. Local telephones and calling out and the Internet is absolutely fine, but TV is not broadcasting any news at all, any images at all, except for images of the royal family.
CONAN: The spokesman for the prime minister, again he was attending the U.N. General Assembly meeting. His spokesman came out in New York and declared: We confirmed that they - meaning the military - that they cannot succeed. Is this just wishful thinking?
Mr. GHOSH: To some extent. Thaksin certainly does have a power base, and he does have loyalist generals in the military, and a lot of the police are among his loyalists. So there's - as I said earlier, I think tonight is not going to be the end of it. There will be some maneuvering and jockeying for power, but the next couple of days will probably be crucial. They'll have to see whether they can get their power base organized and if it's feasible for them to challenge what has happened.
CONAN: You mentioned the police. They are well-armed and usually quite visible in Thailand. They are part of the prime minister's power base you say?
Mr. GHOSH: Yes. They are considered the prime minister's power base, yes, because he is an ex-police man.
CONAN: And does he have a regional power base as well?
Mr. GHOSH: He has a regional power base in the northeast, which delivers the most seats in Parliament; as well as the north, which is also pretty big - high representation in Parliament. And his power base is Bangkok is split. In the south, which has very negligible representation in Parliament, he doesn't have a power base at all. But if you look at the overall country, the votes from the northeast and the north are enough to deliver him power in Parliament.
CONAN: In Parliament. In terms of I guess raw power, military power, does whoever control the Capitol control the country?
Mr. GHOSH: Yes, absolutely.
CONAN: Thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time. We know you're busy, and we also know it's very late.
Mr. GHOSH: Okay, thanks a lot.
CONAN: Nirmal Ghosh is the Thailand correspondent for the Southeast Asian newspaper The Straits Times, and he joined us today on the phone from the capital city of Thailand, Bangkok. Please stay tuned to NPR News for further developments on Thailand as they happen. More on this later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, you've been listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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