Thai Junta Defends Coup, Vows Elections This Year

Thailand's junta chief vowed elections by the end of the year in a nationally televised press conference Tuesday called to defend the coup that brought him to power six months ago.

But the briefing of more than two hours shed no new light on the military's ambitions and did little to ease criticism that the junta-selected government is no better than the administration it replaced.

General Sonthi Boonyaratglin's comments at army headquarters were carried live on all Thailand's television stations.

"We will have free and fair elections on schedule," he said, but refused to rule out the possibility that he would keep a political role after the polls.

Thailand's military coup leader Army commander Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, center, waits to answer a reporter's question, Tuesday, March 20, 2007.

"I'm Thai, and I want to protect the national well-being, so I will do anything I can for the good of the country."

The military has long promised to hold a referendum on a new constitution followed by general elections before the end of the year.

Efforts to write a new charter have been held up by contentious debate over issues ranging from whether the prime minister should be appointed to whether Buddhism should be declared the official religion.

Political parties complain that a military ban on their activities prevents them contributing to the constitution or preparing for eventual elections.

The junta has also been criticised by supporters of the coup that the new government has not moved aggressively enough to prosecute ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra over alleged corruption.

"I am fully aware that people are waiting for the prosecution of wrongdoers, but we have to be fair to all parties," Sonthi said.

"It is a very difficult and slow process to solve problems resulting from the pseudo-democracy and capitalist dictatorship" of Thaksin's government, he told the gathering.

During the briefing, eight agencies -- including the constitution drafters, the Election Commission and the attorney general's office -- gave 15-minute rundowns on their work since the coup.

"The constitution will be completed on time and will be approved in a referendum. National elections will eventually be held by the end of this year," said Decho Savananont, deputy chief of the Constitutional Drafting Council.

The military was initially given a warm welcome from residents of Bangkok when they took power on September 19. Many hoped the putsch would mark an end to a year of turmoil surrounding Thaksin and claims of government corruption.

Instead, the military-installed administration has faced a series of crises that have eroded public support for the regime.

Currency controls imposed in December triggered a 15 percent plunge on the bourse, while tougher investment rules spooked foreign businesses.

The finance minister resigned last month, deepening the uncertainty around the direction of Thailand's economy.

Meanwhile an insurgency by Islamic militants in southern Thailand has got even worse, while deadly bomb blasts in Bangkok on New Year's Eve heightened security concerns around the country.

Source AFP

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