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Coup attempt in Thailand deals blow to nation's political image

A failed coup attempt in Thailand Monday dealt a blow to the nation's image. The government had been trying to move beyond the image of a nation where political differences are settled by military intervention rather than elections. The motives for the attempted overthrow of Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda's government by three former top military officers are still obscure. The simple urge for power may have been one of the dominant reasons, but the possibility that it was partly directed against new armed forces chief of staff-designate, Gen. Chaovalit Yongchaiyuth, cannot be excluded.

Soon after the coup attempt, a junior rebel officer told reporters that the rebels had three grievances: the economy, ``selfish superior officers,'' and a government policy that offered amnesty to members of the Thai communist party during the 1980 communist insurgency.

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Three people are reported to have been killed in the coup attempt: a Thai passer-by and two Western journalists from NBC television, reportedly fired on by a rebel tank.

In the years since the last failed coup attempt in 1981, it was beginning to seem that the era of military power politics was a thing of the past. There had been 16 coups or attempted coups -- five of them between 1971 and 1981 -- since 1932, when the absolute monarchy was abolished.

In the wake of yesterday's attempt, the Thai government will probably be keen to assure its allies, particularly fellow members of the Association of Southeast-Asian Nations and the United States that Monday's events were nothing more than a brief throwback to a more troubled period.

The small number of rebels involved in Monday's coup, and the speed with which their grab for power collapsed, suggests that the military as a whole is no longer keen to become involved in such adventures. All indications were that the coup attempt came as a complete surprise -- even to the Thai military leadership. There were no hints of any unhappiness inside the military, and concern over the economy -- though considerable -- had certainly not reached crisis proportions.

The government named four men as the leaders of the coup attempt: a former prime minister, Gen. Kriangsak Chomanan, and three other former officers, Gens. Yos Thephsadin and Serm Nakorn and Col. Manoon Roopkajorn.

The Thai government claims that the rebels numbered 500. A junior officer involved in the coup put the figure at 300. Most came from armored units (Manoon was a former officer of one such unit), though other units, including some from the Air Force are also said to have been involved. Manoon's brother is an Air Force officer.

By midday Monday the government had regained control, and the rebels were mostly bottled up in the sprawling compound of the armed forces supreme command. At 2 p.m. the government announced that the rebels would have to surrender in one hour or face military action.

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Shortly before the deadline expired, an officer inside the supreme command compound told this correspondent that the top coup leader had left about 30 minutes before by a side exit. By this time, only a handful of rebel soldiers remained, apparently abandoned by their officers. They surrendered quietly.

Colonel Manoon and his brother reportedly surrendered late Monday afternoon. Prime Minister Prem returned to Thailand from the Indonesian capital of Jakarta Monday evening, after breaking off a visit that was expected to focus mainly on regional economic problems.

Before returning to Bangkok, he reportedly went first to brief the royal family in their southern palace near Hatyai.

Most parts of Bangkok were unaffected by the coup. People seemed if not oblivious, at least unconcerned. And the standoff outside the supreme command was watched by hundreds of wary but excited bystanders.

General Kriangsak was General Prem's immediate predecessor as prime minister. He was maneuvered out of office in March 1980 -- and was praised at the time for retiring peacefully instead of trying to hold onto power by unconstitutional means. Since then his political career has been in decline. He has, however, been a strong critic of General Prem on such issues as the war in Kampuchea, where he has called for improved relations with Hanoi.

General Yos, a former assistant army commander, was a minister in Kriangsak's government. General Serm is a former military supreme commander and was deputy premier under Kriangsak for a time.

Serm was involved in another abortive coup -- the so-called April Fool's day coup of 1981.

This was masterminded by a small group of politicized army officers, the so-called ``young turks'' of whom most prominent was Colonel Manoon. Soon after that coup, however, Serm said that he had been forced to join the rebels. He has apparently said the same thing this time.

Kriangsak and Yos have reportedly also claimed that they were unwilling parties to the present coup.

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