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Thai military attacks currency devaluation and demands Cabinet shuffle

The Thai military has once again entered into confrontation with the civilian government. Speaking over two Army-controlled television stations Wednesday night, the armed forces supreme commander, Gen. Arthit Kamlang-ek, attacked the government's decision Monday to devalue the Thai baht by 17.3 percent and called for a Cabinet shuffle. The shuffle demand was also made in a letter, signed by General Arthit and other senior armed forces commanders, and given to the prime minister Wednesday night.

''The reshuffle is the government's only chance to survive,'' Bangkok newspapers quoted Arthit as saying during his TV appearance. The alternative, he hinted, would be ''chaos and instability.''

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But in a press conference Thursday, Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda defended the devaluation and sidestepped questions on the demand for a shuffle.

The premier, who has been incapacitated by illness for several months now, returned to work Thursday, apparently to defuse tension caused by the military demands.

In anticipation of a possible revaluation, however, several banks suspended foreign-currency trading Thursday afternoon. The same day, some workers from the state railway union, which is believed to have close ties to the military, organized a partial strike and demonstrations. Their demands - among them, a government of national unity - seem to mirror those of the military.

The decision to devalue the baht apparently surprised even members of the Cabinet. The minister responsible for decision, Finance Minister Sommai Huntrakun, said the move was necessary to cut the country's growing trade deficit, currently estimated at $3.26 billion.

Arthit complained of the effect the devaluation would have on both the armed forces and the Thai public.

For one thing, the devaluation has seriously reduced the budget of the Thai military, which was planning to make substantial purchases of equipment. These included tanks and almost certainly the sophisticated and expensive F-16 fighter aircraft.

The general, who has long been thought to have ambitions for the premiership - something he routinely denies - also called on the government to find other ways to solve the trade deficit.

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Some observers in Bangkok interpret the military's move as another attempt to force the prime minister out of office. The challenge from the armed forces is also seen as another effort by the military to recover the decisive influence it once enjoyed over Thai politics.

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