Mon, Oct 02, 2006 - Page 1 News List

Thai coup leaders announce new PM

HEAVY RESPONSIBILITY A former general was named Thailand's interim prime minister, and is charged with leading the nation back to democracy

AGENCIES , BANGKOK

Thailand's newly appointed prime minister, retired General Surayud Chulanont, right, greets coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, left, after a press conference at the Government House building in Bangkok yesterday.

PHOTO: AFP

Thailand's military rulers unveiled a stop-gap prime minister and constitution yesterday, fulfilling a promise to step back in favor of civilians within two weeks of their coup against Thaksin Shinawatra.

In other signs of the situation stabilizing, the tanks that had stood outside Government House since the Sept. 19 putsch rolled back to military bases and four of Thaksin's most powerful ministers were released from army custody.

Shortly after television stations announced the interim constitution, army chief and coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin confirmed that Surayud Chulanont, a retired general, would be prime minister under a gradual plan to restore democracy.

"I went to his house and spent half an hour convincing him to take the job while the country is in crisis. He has agreed to take it," Sonthi told reporters at a news conference.

Later, at a ceremony at Government House, Sonthi read out a short statement confirming King Bhumibol Adulyadej's approval of Surayud as Thailand's 24th prime minister in 74 years of democracy.

Happiness first

Surayud, 63, then announced that a new Cabinet would be picked in a week.

He said his government would focus on "people's happiness" above economic growth.

"We will concentrate on the self-sufficient economy that His Majesty the King advocates," he told a news conference. "We won't concentrate so much on the GDP numbers. We would rather look into the indicators of people's happiness and prosperity."

Asked why he deserved to be prime minister rather than Thaksin, Surayud said: "I don't know."

"It depends on the situation, and at this time I think that I receive the mandate from his majesty the king, so I have to take the responsibility," he told reporters in English at his first press conference shortly after taking office.

Surayud in the past has spoken out against military involvement in politics, but he told reporters he felt he had to take the job "because of the necessity to address the country's problems."

"I'm looking at the long term," he said in Thai. "I will act on my own conscience as prime minister. I will be friendly with everyone, and will try to listen to all the information if possible, and to meet with every sector of society."

Under the new constitution, he is charged with keeping the country and economy ticking over while a panel of eminent Thais draws up a new long-term constitution.

According to the generals' "democracy roadmap," this should take about nine months, at the end of which there will be a referendum and national elections.

Balancing act

Although a career military man, Surayud -- until now a senior royal adviser -- has a reputation as a reformer who recognized the need to keep soldiers out of politics in a country which has now seen 18 successful coups.

The coming months could test his patience to the limits as he tries to convince Thais and outsiders that he is marching the country back to democracy at the same time as keeping his old friends in the army happy.

Despite promises not to interfere, doubts remain about the military's neutrality, especially given that the coup leaders are staying on in a Council for National Security with the power to dismiss the interim administration.

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