BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's military seized power in an apparently bloodless coup Saturday, overthrowing the elected government, arresting the prime minister and declaring martial law.
Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan, the country's first elected prime minister after a decade of rule by military leaders, was arrested at Bangkok airport and was being held by the air force, a senior military source said. The military coup leaders, however, have made no mention of action against the prime minister or any arrests.
Chatichai took office after the 1988 elections. The ability of his sometimes shaky coalition to survive a series of conflicts with the military, aided by a booming economy, had been seen as a sign of progress in efforts to maintain a stable democracy.
That was shattered when heavily armed troops in armored personnel carriers began the coup d'etat by seizing government television and radio stations.
'The National Peacekeeping Council made up of the armed forces including the army, navy, air force and police has taken control of the country as of 11:30 a.m.,' said the supreme commander, Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong in a televised address.
'This taking control of the country is most importantly intended to preserve the democratic system and the constitutional monarchy,' Sunthorn announced. He was shown with the commanders of the four armed forces seated around him.
Sunthorn said he headed the new ruling council and the commanders of the army, air force, navy and police were council deputy leaders. The 59-year-old former special forces commander said there would be no change in Thailand's foreign policy and all foreign embassies and institutions would be respected.
Late Saturday the military announced that the coup group had traveled to Chieng Mai in northern Thailand to explain the reasons for their actions to King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Bhumibol, widely revered by the Thai people, is seen as the key to popular acceptance of the military takeover. Royal disapproval was seen as part of the reason for the failure of coup attempts in 1981 and 1985.
There were no immediate reports of resistance to the coup, Thailand's 17th since the absolute monarchy ended in 1932.
A military announcement said corruption, harassment of civil servants by political leaders, efforts to divide the army, and what it called 'parliamentary dictatorship' were the reasons behind the coup. Sunthorn also cited what he said were attempts to distort an investigation into a series of assassination attempts against Thai leaders in 1982.
In televised announcements, the military ordered martial law, abrogated of the constitution and dissolved the Parliament and Cabinet. It banned gatherings of more than five people and conferred all legal powers of the prime minister on Sunthorn.
All radio and television stations were ordered to stop regular broadcasting and relay only the transmissions of approved military stations.
The council announced military censorship of all newspapers and warned newspapers printing unapproved material could be closed permanently.
All newspaper editors, senior bank executives, labor leaders and senior civil servants were ordered to report to the army headquarters over the next two days to hear the council's policies.
A senior military source said Chatichai, 71, was detained by Air Force security troops while attempting to travel to northern Thailand for an audience with the King. Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Arthit Kamlang-ek and other aides were detained at the same time, the source said.
Five armored personnel carriers were stationed at the government-run Channel 9 television station. Soldiers armed with M-16 assault rifles blocked the station entrance with a heavy machine gun.
Troops also surrounded other government broadcasting stations and buildings including the offices of the prime minister and his advisory group.
The coup followed disputes between the Chatichai government and military leaders over the appointment of Arthit and a 9-year-old assassination investigation.
Some military sources said senior officers feared the appointment of Arthit, a former army commander, was an attempt to divide the military and dismiss key officers including Sunthorn.
Sunthorn announced on television a key reason for the coup was an attempt to distort the investigation into nine assassination attempts in 1982 aimed at then Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda, Arthit, then army commander, and Queen Sirikit. All three had been key figures in the crushing of a 1981 coup attempt led by Col. Manoon Rupkachorn.
Sunthorn said political influence was used to delay the investigation and protect the guilty parties. He said he feared the same influence would be used to shift the blame.
Military television then broadcast a videotape of a confession of one of the alleged plotters who named Manoon, now a defense ministry official reportedly close to Chatichai, as the instigator of the plots.
Chatichai this month sacked the police officer in charge of the investigation.Several army officers were scheduled to be questioned as suspects in the case. There also were allegations that Kraisak Choonhavan, the prime minister's son and close advisor, was involved.
Last year government and military leaders clashed over the use of a government mobile radio truck which the military charged was used to intercept sensitive military communications. Military and civilian leaders also traded charges of corruption.
Heavily armed troops in five armored personnel carriers began the coup d'etat by seizing a government television station.
'The National Peacekeeping Council made up of the armed forces, including the army, navy, air force and police, have taken control of the country as of 11:30 a.m. and all citizens and officials should follow their directions,' said Supreme Commander Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong in a televised address.
'This taking control of the country is most importantly intended to preserve the democratic system and the constitutional monarchy,' Sunthorn said.
The commanders of the four armed forces were seated around him.NEWLN: more
The broadcast of the announcement was briefly interrupted and then resumed.
There were no immediate reports of resistance to the coup, Thailand's 17th since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932.
There was no confirmation of the whereabouts of Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan, but one unconfirmed report said he had been detained while attempting to travel to northern Thailand for an audience with King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
A person answering the telephone at the Prime Minister' s residence immediately hung up after being informed a reporter was calling.NEWLN: more
'One truckload of armed troops moved into the Channel 9 building. We had to cease broadcasting,' said a Channel 9 official contacted by telephone.
The official said the troops moved into the building and were checking the identities of employees.
A United Press International reporter counted five armored personnel carriers at the television station. He said the soldiers, armed with M- 16 assault rifles, had set up a heavy machine guns at the entrance to the station and were blocking anyone from entering or leaving the compound.
Sunthorn said all military units should remain in their positions until they receive orders from the Peacekeeping Council.
He said he headed the council and that the commanders of the army, air force, navy and police were deputy leaders of the council.
Sunthorn said there would be no change in Thailand's foreign policy and that all foreign embassies and institutions would be respected.NEWLN: more
Thai newspapers have reported that the Thai military was upset at the appointment Wednesday of former army commander Gen. Arthit Kamlang-ek as deputy defense minister.
Arthit, who is also a deputy prime minister, was seen as a threat to the current leadership of the army, which comes from an opposing military faction.
Chatichai had been expected to seek an audience with the king in the northern city of Chieng Mai this weekend to make the appointment official.
On Friday both Arthit and Sunthorn denied there was any friction between the military and the government.
'I see no reason why anybody would want to (stage a coup),' Arthit said in response to questions about the possibility of a military takeover.
Sunthorn also downplayed speculation that Arthit was about to dismiss him and army commander Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon.NEWLN: more
Government-military relations have also been disturbed by the sudden revival of an investigation into an alleged 1984 plot to assassinate Arthit and Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda.
The policeman in charge of the investigation, considered close to Suchinda, was sacked earlier this month and an agressive investigator brought in.
Chatichai ordered that hearings on the case be broadcast to avoid charges of a coverup. Chatichai' s son and adviser Kraisak filed a police complaint against leaflets that charged he was involved in the plot.
Several army officers were scheduled to be questioned as suspects in the case.
The military and the civilian government have been at odds for more than eight months for a variety of reasons.
Government and military leaders clashed over the use of a government mobile radio truck that the military charged was used to intercept sensitive military communications.
Military and civilian leaders have also traded veiled charges of corruption.
The Thai military has staged 17 coup attempts since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932, frequently seizing political power.
Two attempts were put down in 1981 and 1985.