Thailand's new military-appointed prime minister got down to work yesterday, tasked with healing deep political divisions and assuring the world the country is on the path back to democracy.
Analysts and the Thai media urged General Surayud Chulanont, a 63-year-old former army chief, to work to unite the nation after the fracture that led to the ouster of Thaksin Shinawatra in the bloodless Sept. 19 coup.
Appointed and sworn on Sunday by the junta, Surayud was scheduled yesterday to pay his respects to Thailand's most senior Buddhist monk, the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand Somdet Phra Yana Sangwara of Wat Bovornivet, who is ill.
Then he was due to get down to business at his offices in Government House. Tanks and troops, which have guarded the building in central Bangkok since the coup, were withdrawn to their barracks on Sunday.
The English-language Nation daily said Surayud's first priorities must be national reconciliation and restoring peace in the insurgency-hit south.
"Now that Surayud has accepted the biggest burden that any Thai citizen can possibly take by trying to fix the country's ailing democracy, there is no going back," it said.
"In his new role as civilian prime minister, Surayud not only must work against a tight deadline, but also live up to huge public expectations."
Surayud vowed on Sunday to "act on my own conscience as prime minister," but the former royal advisor and briefly Buddhist monk also struck a humble and conciliatory note that contrasted with the style of the strong-willed Thaksin, who was accused of corruption and autocratic rule.
He has asked for a week to select a new Cabinet, saying he was looking for "people who are politically neutral, knowledgeable, competent and willing to work."
It remained unclear how much autonomy Surayud will have in choosing his team of ministers, and what influence the junta will have.
Thailand's generals have reserved for themselves the right to look over his shoulder and even sack him in a new interim constitution they approved over the weekend, raising concerns about his independence.
Political economist Wiszanu Boonmarat of Thailand's Burapa University said the junta's choice of Surayud, who had served in the military for almost four decades, reflected its intention to keep a grip on power.
"Surayud is a retired military officer and the junta needs to secure its power," he said. "This is a common way to protect its interest."
Wiszanu said the new prime minister faced tough challenges, including restoring global confidence after Thailand's first coup in 15 years.
"The new prime minister must also build confidence and cooperation among the business community and the grass roots, especially Thaksin supporters," he said. "He has to show vision, especially on civil liberty and media freedom."
Others voiced support for Surayud, who has been praised as a military reformer and a man of humility and integrity.
"General Surayud is the right person at this time, which requires someone who has charisma and is honest and respected by the people," Sombat Thamrongthanyawong of the National Institute of Development Administration said.
"He will not be controlled by the military council because he was their boss before and he has been invited by them to take the position," he said.
Thai media has speculated that central bank chief Preediyathorn Devakula -- who had earlier been tipped for the PM's post -- could become finance minister and that former premier Chavalit Yongchaiyudh could serve as a "security adviser."