Thailand’s new government endorsed by king

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20-Dec-2008

The announcement came after King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country’s revered monarch, endorsed Abhisit Vejjajiva, whom lawmakers voted in as prime minister on Dec. 15. The Cabinet was announced on national television and will be sworn in Monday.

Abhisit is Thailand’s third leader in four months — and the first opponent of ex-Premier Thaksin Shinawatra to lead a civilian government in seven years. His selection raised hopes that he would stop the revolving door of prime ministers, many of whom were forced from office by months of demonstrations aimed at ridding the government of Thaksin’s allies.

But his 35-member Cabinet includes picks that critics have already said will make it harder to unite the deeply divided nation — largely split between the middle class that is his base and the rural poor who backed Thaksin.

Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup but was at the center of a country’s political crisis, which was led by protesters determined to rid Thai government of his political allies. Thaksin fled into exile to avoid corruption charges.

The selection that drew the most criticism was Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, 64, a career diplomat who was a prominent supporter of the protesters who occupied the prime minister’s office compound for three months and then blockaded Bangkok’s two airports in late November.

Kasit appeared several times as a guest speaker at the protests led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy movement and hailed the Nov 29- Dec. 3 airport blockade as a “new innovation for public protests.”

Kasit comes with solid professional credentials: He is a Georgetown University graduate and former ambassador to the U.S., Japan, Germany, Indonesia and the former Soviet Union.

But pundits and critics say Abhisit’s selection of Kasit as foreign minister is unlikely to heal the political rifts between Thaksin’s supporters and opponents that have divided the country.

Even Abhisit acknowledged he is not entirely satisfied with the Cabinet, saying Friday there were “political limitations” to his choices.

He leads a coalition government with a slim majority in Parliament that was patched together with lawmakers who defected from the People’s Power Party after a court dissolved it over corruption charges. The PPP, which had been the ruling party, was packed with Thaksin allies.

Political scientist Sukhum Nuansakul called the lineup a “necessary compromise” to keep the coalition factions satisfied.

“Right now, the government needs immediate stability and that comes with a price,” said Sukhum of Bangkok’s Ramkhamhaeng University.

The months of political turmoil has dogged Thailand’s economy — heavily dependent on tourism — and already reeling from the global slowdown. Abhisit who holds a degree in economics will lead the government’s economic team with his Oxford classmate, Korn Chatikavanij, as finance minister.

The 44-year-old Korn is a respected economist and former investment banker who headed Thailand’s office of JP Morgan Chase & Co. from 1999-2004. He is also known for his good looks, which have earned him a nickname from the Thai media that translates as “Tall, Handsome.”

But another pick has been linked to corruption. The Democrat Party’s secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban, 59, was appointed deputy prime minister to oversee security matters.

Suthep was accused in 1995 of distributing plots of land allotted for agricultural use by the poor to his cronies. The scandal brought down the administration of then Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, a Democrat.

The Cabinet also includes Interior Minister Chavarat Charnvirakul, 72, a former Thaksin supporter who jumped fence to the Democrats.

Abhisit also appointed the wives of two Thaksin allies who received five-year bans from politics after the 2006 coup. Commerce Minister Pornthiwa Nakasai used to manage cocktail lounges owned by her family, and Information Minister Ranongrak Suwanchawee is a former nurse.

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