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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Thai coup sends few ripples to Cambodia

Thai coup sends few ripples to Cambodia

Caretaker Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a bloodless coup on September 19. At Post press time the situation in Bangkok remained calm and the Cambodian government did not foresee any immediate troublesome ramifications with its populous neighbor to the west.

Soldiers with tanks encircled the Prime Minister's office in Bangkok late on Tuesday night. Martial law was declared and the constitution revoked. Thaksin was in New York at the time, preparing to address the United Nations General Assembly, a speech that was subsequently cancelled.

He responded by declaring a state of emergency and announcing the dismissal of the Army Chief, moves that failed to stem the coup as his Deputy Prime Minister, Chitchai Wannasathit, and Defense Minister, Thammarak Isaragura na Ayuthaya - both Thaksin loyalists -were arrested by the military. They have since agreed to resign.

Troops loyal to Army Commander-in-Chief General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin seized control of TV stations and other key buildings and infrastructure across Bangkok.

Calling themselves the Democratic Reform Council, they cited unprecedented division in the country as justification for taking power for a temporary period - the length of which remains unspecified - and apologized to the Thai public for any inconvenience caused.

The council, composed of the commanders of the three armed forces and the national police chief, claimed to be acting on behalf of the Thai King, Bhumibol Adulyadej. Boonyaratkalin, who is known to be close to Thailand's king, has been declared acting Prime Minister. Soldiers in Bangkok were wearing yellow ribbons signifying their loyalty to the king.

This is Thailand's 18th coup since its absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932.

Governments from across the globe have been swift to condemn the coup, with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan calling for a quick return to democracy.

The Cambodian government is monitoring the situation in Bangkok carefully but is not unduly concerned, said Minister of Information and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith.

"The situation in Thailand remains calm, their borders and airports are still open," he said.

Consequently, the government has not considered it necessary to issue any specific guidance to Cambodian citizens travelling to Thailand, Kanharith said.

With the notable exception of the 2002 anti-Thai riots - which saw the Thai embassy and many Thai-owned businesses in Phnom Penh burned and looted - Cambodia has long had excellent relations with Thailand and the coup d'etat will not change this, Kanharith said.

"Relations with Thailand have been good since before Thaksin became Prime Minister," he said. " The relationship will remain smooth in all sectors, including investment."

Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian Son Chhay said the coup next door was an important lesson for Cambodia.

"It is a lesson for the Cambodian government to be careful in managing its own country," he said. "There have to be measures in place to effectively prevent corruption."

The coup d'etat was caused by dissatisfaction with pervasive corruption in Thailand, and the Cambodian government needs to take note, Chhay said.

"If corruption is rampant, not only will citizens become disillusioned, but powerful figures might become inclined to move for change as has happened in Bangkok," he said.

Thaksin's flagrantly corrupt behavior had brought the wrath of both citizens and the Thai military down upon him, Chhay said.

"Thaksin himself used his position of power to exploit the country, for example by not paying tax to the state when he sold his telecom stock," he said. "That showed that the leader has no loyalty to the nation."

Despite Chhay's assertions that a similar coup d'etat could occur in Cambodia if corruption were to continue unchecked, threats of a military takeover in Cambodia are for all practical purposes non-existent, said military and diplomatic analysts.

All major armed "intervention units" - most importantly the Bodyguard Unit, the 70 Brigade, the 911 Parachute Regiment, and the Gendarmarie - are either directly or indirectly loyal to Hun Sen, they said.

Military analysts said the Bodyguard Unit is the most important. It comprises about 4,000 soldiers who are said to train frequently. Led by General Kun Kim, the unit is based in Phnom Penh and operates in direct support of the Prime Minister.

The 70 Brigade is also based in the capital area and has around 2,000 soldiers. Led by Mao Siphan, the unit is also perceived as directly loyal to Hun Sen.

The 911 Parachute Regiment is based west of Phnom Penh. The unit has historical ties to Chief of Staff Ke Kim Yan, although sources say these are now mixed.

Finally, the Gendarmarie is a paramilitary unit with about 7,000 soldiers deployed in all provinces. Headquartered in Phnom Penh, the unit is led by General Sao Sokha, who was one of Hun Sen's bodyguards in the 1980s. The unit's chain of command is through the Ministry of Defense, but sources say that when push comes to shove the Prime Minister has the final say on how they are deployed, especially in crises.

RCAF main force units, while generally considered less effective and poorly equipped, are also said to be loyal to Hun Sen, particularly the two units nearest to Phnom Penh in Military Region 2 (Kampong Speu) and Military Region 3 (Kampong Cham).

Thaksin is the first democratically elected Prime Minister in Thailand to serve a full four-year term, having been first elected in 2002 and then re-elected in 2005. Dissatisfaction with his style of government had spread and he faced stiff opposition in urban areas and indirect opposition from elements of the Thai armed forces, who had earlier this year declared their ultimate loyalty was to the King, not to the Thai government.

Thaksin responded to widespread public dissatisfaction by holding a snap election in April this year. Boycotted by opposition parties, Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai party won the election with a sizable majority, but he shrewdly stepped down before the courts declared the results of the election invalid. New elections were scheduled for October 15 but had already been postponed once.

Chhay said the coup's leaders vowed to restore democracy as soon as they can and claimed they should be believed.

"The military took power from the Prime Minister, but they will not take over," he said. "They will hand power to an interim government and then organize new elections."

An official at the Council of Ministers said information he had received from Bangkok on September 20 led him to believe that the city was calm and its residents, although staying indoors, were pleased by the prospect of a change of political leadership.

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