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Thai Junta Clamps Down

Thailand's new military rulers said Thursday they have assumed the duties of parliament, which was dissolved when the government was ousted in a coup earlier this week, and they banned meetings by all political parties.

The new regime also said it has detained four top members of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's administration.

The junta's actions, which it said was to maintain peace and order, have come even though no open opposition has emerged to its Tuesday night ouster of Thaksin. Other moves include barring the establishment of new parties and placing limitations on public meetings and restrictions on the media.

Thailand has had no working legislature and only a caretaker government since February, when Thaksin dissolved parliament to hold new elections to try to reaffirm his mandate.

With Thaksin secluded in London, the provisional government headed by Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin also moved to place the vast assets of the telecommunications tycoon-turned-politician under scrutiny, amid mounting calls for his prosecution for alleged corruption.

Thaksin released a statement saying he would take a "deserved rest," and urged the military to quickly arrange for new national elections. He urged "all parties to find ways and means to reconcile and work toward national reconciliation for the sake of our king and country." He did not say if he planned to return from London, where he has a home.

Lt. Gen. Palanggoon Klaharn, a spokesman for the ruling military council, said the four trusted Thaksin associates were under the "care" of the military.

Newin Chidchob, the minister attached to the prime minister's office, and Yongyut Tiyapairat, the minister of Natural Resources and Environment, surrendered to the military authorities Thursday, Palanggoon said. Deputy Prime Minister Chitchai Wannasathit and Cabinet Secretary General Prommin Lertsuridej, who was Thaksin's top aide, had been detained earlier.

"During the transition period, every country does this in order for the situation to return to normalcy quickly," Palanggoon said.

Thaksin's decline began about a year ago when a popular movement called for his resignation for alleged corruption and abuse of power. Critics allege he took advantage of his position as head of government to enrich himself and his associates.

Less than 48 hours after the army sent tanks into the streets of Bangkok to terminate Thaksin's tenure, the capital was back to business as usual Thursday, with stores reopening and roads jammed with traffic.

And despite condemnation of the coup by Western and some Asian governments, hope emerged in Thailand that the new government might have a chance to resolve a bloody Muslim insurgency that has led to the deaths of more than 1,700 people.

An exiled rebel leader welcomed the military coup, saying it could help resolve the country's bloody Muslim insurgency.

Lukman B. Lima, head of one of several groups fighting the central government for a separate Muslim state, said Sondhi, a Muslim, was the "only one who knows the real problems" of the Muslim-dominated provinces of southern Thailand.

"We hope that the political (situation) can be resolved under Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin as the new leader," Lukman wrote in an e-mailed response to questions from The Associated Press. Lukman, vice president of the Pattani United Liberation Organization, or PULO, is in exile in Sweden.

Thaksin arrived Wednesday in London from New York, where he had been attending the U.N. General Assembly.

"I left Thailand as the prime minister and now I am a jobless man," the official Thai News Agency quoted Thaksin as telling reporters on the flight from New York. "Never mind, I can still keep in touch with my family. Everyone is fine." However, the agency said Thaksin was "grim-faced" as he spoke.

In his statement, Thaksin said he was planning to work on research and development and possible charitable work for the country.

"The event in Thailand during the past two days should not detract from my main aim of national reconciliation," Thaksin said.

"I haven't talked to him directly but judging from what I learned from seniors of our party, I don't think he will return in the near future," said Sansasee Nakphong, former spokeswoman for Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party.

Sondhi has said he would serve as de facto prime minister for two weeks and then the junta, which calls itself the Council of Administrative Reform, will choose a civilian to replace him. A constitution is to be drawn up and elections held in one year's time.

The military leader received the imprimatur Wednesday of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, which should effectively quash any efforts at resistance by Thaksin's partisans.

The junta empowered Auditor-General Jaruvan Maintaka to investigative government corruption, which could lead to the confiscation of Thaksin's assets. Jaruvan, dubbed "The Iron Lady" was one of the few government officials who tried to expose corruption during Thaksin's regime and would have lost her job if it had not been for backing from the palace.

The Office of the Auditor-General said it would continue its investigation into 14 cases of alleged corruption that occurred during Thaksin's tenure.

Washington believes Thailand's first coup in 15 years is "a step backward for democracy," State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said.

The European Union demanded "that the military forces stand back and give way to the democratically elected political government." Other Western governments have issued similar statements.

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, a popular vacation destination for Westerners.

Many Thais appeared relieved at the resolution of political tensions festering since the beginning of the year, when street demonstrations demanding Thaksin step down for alleged corruption and abuse of power gained momentum.

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.

The bloodless nature of the coup gave hope that the effects on Thailand's large tourist industry might be minimal.

Although Thaksin handily won three general elections, opponents accused him of emasculating democratic institutions, including packing the state Election Commission with cronies and stifling media that were once among Asia's freest.

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