Sun, Oct 15, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Thai PM visits Laos and Cambodia

BUSINESS AS USUAL The military-backed leader is expected to reassure his counterparts in Vientiane and Phnom Penh that there will be no major policy changes

AFP , HANOI

Thailand's military-installed prime minister Surayud Chulanont was expected yesterday in Vientiane, his first stop on a weekend tour aimed at reassuring neighbors Laos and Cambodia that Bangkok won't pull any more surprises.

The trip will be Surayud's first abroad since he was sworn in as Thailand's new prime minister on Oct. 1, replacing Thaksin Shinawatra who was overthrown in a bloodless coup on Sept. 19.

It's also the first of several trips around the region that Surayud has planned over the next three months.

"The purpose of his visit is to improve understanding on [Su-rayud's] government role and function for his one-year term and strengthen ties with those two neighboring countries," government spokesman Yongyuth Mayalarp told reporters earlier this week.

The new Thai leader is expected to land soon after 9am in Vientiane where he will meet his Laotian counterpart Bouasone Bouphavanh.

He is also expected to pay a courtesy call to Laos president and communist party chief Choummaly Sayasone in the afternoon, before heading to Cambodia where he will meet Prime Minister Hun Sen today.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, said the trip underlined the importance of Bangkok's relations with ASEAN.

"Laos and Cambodia are our close neighbors and ASEAN members and it is very important for Thailand to have good relations with them," he said. "He will reassure his counterparts that there will be no major policy changes under the new government."

Surayud is travelling with his deputy Pridiyathorn Devakula, who is also finance minister, and Foreign Minister Nitya Pibulsonggram.

Laos has been very discreet about the coup in Bangkok and its aftermath, declining to comment about the "interior affairs of Thailand."

But Surayud was invited to Laos soon after his appointment.

"Any government in Thailand representing the Thai people with a royal mandate is considered legitimate," Laos foreign ministry spokesman Yong Chantalangsy told reporters.

"We expect this visit to enable the leaders to get to know each other, and to reaffirm the continuity of our bilateral relations," he said, adding Vientiane was "honored" to welcome Surayud for his first trip abroad.

The talks should cover bilateral cooperation and trade, as well as long-running border disputes and the handling of ethnic Hmong refugees, which has been a thorn in relations for decades.

For Laos, "it is a very good thing that the Thai prime minister makes his first trip here," a foreign diplomat said.

"With Thaksin, [Laos officials] knew who they were dealing with. They had established clear relations. Now, there is a change in Bangkok and they want to know if it will also work well," he said.

This trip is the first in a flurry of overseas visits in the next three months.

Surayud is due to visit Malaysia, Thailand's southern neighbor, on Wednesday and is expected in other ASEAN capitals soon.

Later this month, Surayud is scheduled to travel to China to mark the 15th anniversary of relations between China and ASEAN.

In mid-November, he is to join the APEC summit in Hanoi and in December is also expected to attend the ASEAN summit in the Philippines.

Panitan said making his first visits to Laos and Cambodia made sense for Surayud because they are not far from home and the military is clearly still wary of any anti-coup movements, either in Thailand or abroad.

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