Former Thailand army Chief Sonthi Boonyaratglin

Former Thailand army Chief Sonthi Boonyaratglin

A Thai general who led a 2006 coup that ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra became the leader of a new party Wednesday, saying he could even one day work with the toppled tycoon’s allies in government.

Former army chief Sonthi Boonyaratglin was chosen as chief of the small Matubhum Party, which mostly comprises Muslim politicians from Thailand’s insurgency-hit southern provinces bordering Malaysia.

“I decided to lead this party because its policies are neutral and our country is deeply divided. The party goal is to make our country peaceful,” Sonthi told reporters.

He refused to rule out working with the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai party, which is now in opposition, if they defeat current prime minister and arch Thaksin foe Abhisit Vejjajiva in elections due by 2011.

“It depends on our policy, if our policies are in line with them,” he said when asked about possible cooperation.

Puea Thai’s predecessor was dissolved by the election commission for fraud in December 2008 at around the same time as anti-Thaksin protesters blockaded Bangkok’s airports, paving the way for Abhisit to take power.

“I staged the coup to overthrow the Thaksin government and to preserve democracy. But a diplomat asked me recently how can Thailand have backtracked so much in the past two years,” Sonthi said.

An alliance with Thaksin’s allies would mark a radical turnaround for Sonthi just three years after he led the September 2006 coup accusing the telecoms tycoon of widespread corruption and of disloyalty to the king.

His announcement also adds to the potential opponents faced by Abhisit’s Democrat Party in the next elections.

The founder of Thailand’s Thaksin-hating “Yellow Shirt” protesters, Sondhi Limthongkul, was last month elected head of its newly-created political wing, the New Politics Party.

The Yellow Shirts led the blockade of Bangkok’s airports almost one year ago and held mass street protests against Thaksin in the months before the coup.

Thaksin is living in exile to avoid a two-year jail term for corruption but has continued to stoke up support at home. Earlier this month he visited neighbouring Cambodia as an economic adviser, sparking a diplomatic crisis.

The “Red Shirt” movement, which backs Thaksin, said it was planning to hold the latest in a series of anti-government protests starting from November 29 and continuing until Abhisit steps down.

“As long as the government is in office we will demonstrate — this government is not legitimate,” Red Shirt leader and Puea Thai member Jatuporn Prompan said.

“This time there will be two stints of protest as we have to stop for the king’s birthday celebrations (on December 5).”

The Red Shirts took to the streets earlier this year, protesting outside Abhisit’s office for nearly three weeks before forcing the cancellation of a major Asian summit and then rioting in Bangkok in April. — AFP