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Thailand coup leaders suspend constitution, army chief heads junta

Thailand's coup leaders have suspended the country's constitution, hours after the military announced it has taken control of the government in a coup.

BANGKOK: Thailand's coup leaders have suspended the country's constitution, hours after the military announced it has taken control of the government in a coup.

"In order to run the country smoothly, (coup leaders have) suspended the constitution of 2007, except for the chapter on the monarchy," said a statement read out on national television.

The coup leaders also ordered members of the now-deposed government's cabinet to report to the military by the end of the day.

"In order to keep peace and order, the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council orders these persons to report themselves to the Council by May 22," said the statement.

Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha will head the military council that is now in charge of the country, said deputy spokesman Winthai Suvaree in the statement.

Prayuth seized control of the government, two days after he declared martial law, saying the army had to restore order and push through reforms.

Prayuth made the announcement in a television broadcast after a meeting to which he had summoned the rival factions in Thailand's drawn-out political conflict, apparently with the aim of finding a solution to nearly seven months of political rallies in the capital. 

"In order for the situation to return to normal quickly and for society to love and be at peace again ... and to reform the political, economic and social structure, the military needs to take control of power," Prayuth said.

The military later declared a nationwide curfew from 10pm-5am and ordered demonstrators on both sides of the kingdom's political divide to disperse and go home. It also banned gatherings of more than five people.

Moments before Prayuth's stunning announcement, witnesses said they saw leaders of Thailand's two main political parties and its rival protest movements being taken by the military from a venue where Prayuth had convened talks aimed at resolving their differences.

It was unclear if they had been formally detained.

The tough-talking Prayuth, 60, said he seized power because of "the violence in Bangkok and many parts of the country that resulted in loss of innocent lives and property and was likely to escalate."

It is the latest twist in a nearly decade-long political crisis stretching back to an earlier coup in 2006 that deposed the controversial tycoon-turned-politician Thaksin Shinawatra as premier -- a move that infuriated his supporters.

"All Thais must remain calm and government officials must work as normal," Prayuth said in the brief announcement around 5 pm (1000 GMT), flanked by four of his top officers.

Rumours of an imminent coup had gripped Thailand since Tuesday, when the army chief declared martial law to prevent deadly political tensions spiralling out of control.

The overthrow caps months of increasing political tension pitting a Bangkok-based royalist elite and its backers against the democratically elected government aligned to Thaksin, whose sister Yingluck was dismissed as premier earlier this month in a controversial court ruling.

Thaksin now lives in Dubai to avoid prison for a corruption conviction, but he and his political allies retain strong support in Thailand, particularly in the rural north, and have won every general election since 2001.

Timeline: Thailand's Political Unrest

Some experts expressed fears the military takeover could unleash more turmoil.

"The coup is not a solution at all to end the crisis. This will become the crisis," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Japan's Kyoto University.

"It shows the military has never learned the lesson from 2006," he said, referring to the cycle of political crisis stemming from Thaksin's overthrow.

Pavin said the coup would make anti-government protesters "very happy".

Protests by the anti-Thaksin movement have rocked Thailand for months. Related violence has left at least 28 people dead and hundreds wounded.

The army chief likely took over due to the weakened caretaker government's refusal to make way for an interim regime, said Paul Chambers of the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University.

"Since the caretaker government was resisting moving to an ad hoc prime minister, Prayuth was pressured to take the 2006 option," he said.

Caretaker premier Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, who had refused calls to step down, was among the ministers ordered to report to the army.

Niwattumrong was "safe" in an undisclosed location, an aide said.

Prayuth, a staunch royalist aligned with the anti-Thaksin bloc, had earlier vowed not to allow Thailand to become another "Ukraine or Egypt."

"What I am doing in my security capacity -- if I upset anyone, I apologise but it is necessary," he said on Thursday before the coup announcement.

Thailand's democratic development has now been repeatedly been curbed by a total of 19 actual or attempted coups since 1932.

Martial law gives the military wide powers to ban public gatherings, restrict movements, and detain people, though most of those powers had not been invoked before the coup.

The military has taken steps to muzzle the media since Tuesday. On Thursday it announced after the coup that all public and private television and radio stations must suspend normal programming and only broadcast army feeds.

Prayuth gave no indication how long the military would hold power. He said it took over in order to "start political reform", without giving details.

The pro-Thaksin "Red Shirt" movement had called for new national polls they hope will provide a fresh mandate to the beleaguered elected government.

But the anti-government movement has first demanded vague political reforms that are widely seen as a bid to cripple the political power of Thaksin's family and allies, and some Thais welcomed the army takeover.

Arnusit Chenruk, a 39-year-old Bangkok office worker, said the coup was a "good" thing.

"Our country has been chaotic and has had no solutions for a long time." 

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