Amnesty paves way for ouster of Thai leader


BANGKOK, Thailand -- The Thai monarch issued a general amnesty yesterday to government leaders and military officers involved in the brutal suppression of last week's anti-government demonstrations amid signs that Prime Minister Suchinda Kraprayoon was preparing to resign and possibly flee the country.

General Suchinda, who tenaciously clung to power for six weeks despite popular demands that he resign, spent the day yesterday negotiating his departure from the job.

Deputy Prime Minister Meechai Ruchupan said General Suchinda had told him that he would quit after seeing King Bhumibol Adulyadej to resolve the crisis. The meeting took place Friday night.

Rumors swept Bangkok last night that General Suchinda had already fled to Singapore or Copenhagen, Denmark, but none of the reports could be confirmed. Tensions were high after national television solemnly announced a "major government announcement," but it never came.

Television broadcast the text of the decree granting amnesty to everyone involved in the demonstrations and those who suppressed them, including "commanders and those commanded." At least 40 people were killed and hundreds wounded.

Although promulgated by the king at General Suchinda's request, the amnesty must still be approved by Parliament, which may not follow automatically because of widespread public anger at the killings.

It became obvious Friday afternoon that General Suchinda's days were numbered when the five parties in the governing coalition abandoned support for him and announced plans to adopt a constitutional amendment requiring a prime minister to be an elected member of Parliament.

General Suchinda, appointed to the post April 7, was never a member of Parliament and thus would have been disqualified.

For many Thais, General Suchinda came to symbolize interference by the Thai military in the country's politics, a state of affairs that has existed most of the time since an absolute monarchy was replaced by constitutional rule 60 years ago.

General Suchinda was considered the mastermind behind a bloodless coup that ousted the last elected government in February 1991. At that time, he won respect for appointing a caretaker civilian administration, which was among the best Thailand has ever seen.

But General Suchinda, who spent his life in the armed forces and publicly disdained politicians, misstepped repeatedly in the drafting of a new constitution and plans for a general election.

After promising that he would never seek the prime minister's job, General Suchinda orchestrated a provision in the constitution that allowed for appointment of a prime minister from outside the Parliament, a clear indication that he was planning to seek the job.

When the five-party coalition stumbled by offering the job to a politician accused of involvement in drug dealing by the United States, the parties turned to General Suchinda, who resigned as armed forces supreme commander to take the post.

Almost immediately, protests by pro-democracy forces began demanding his resignation. The protests intensified when General Suchinda named 11 politicians to his Cabinet who had been branded corrupt after the coup.

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