Thailand’s new foreign minister was immediately under pressure on assuming the role, after lawmakers criticized his ties with protesters who commandeered the capital’s airports.
Kasit Piromya, a 64-year-old graduate of Georgetown University, appeared at rallies organized by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which began an eight-day blockade of Suvarnabhumi International
Airport last month.
The airport closure left an estimated 350,000 people stranded, and new Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has since said protesters must be held legally accountable for their actions.
The PAD, whose earlier demonstrations against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra preceded his ouster in a coup in 2006, took to the streets in May, accusing the government of acting as a corrupt proxy for Thaksin.
“I want to tell him [Thaksin] that he will not win this fight. We will not step back,” Kasit said at a protest rally earlier this year near Government House, which the group besieged in late August.
Kasit has since defended his role in the protests, saying that he only joined up “to help society have good governance.”
“Joining the PAD was not a sin because millions of people had also joined it to help uproot corruption,” he said in quotes reported in the Bangkok Post newspaper on Saturday.
The foreign minister began his career at the ministry in 1968 and has since held ambassadorial roles in Germany, Japan and the US.
As a staunch nationalist, Kasit criticized the previous government’s handling of a crisis with Cambodia, triggered with the neighboring nation’s application for World Heritage status for an ancient temple on a disputed border.
Thailand says that it owns part of the temple’s land and the protracted dispute led to a deployment of soldiers from both sides to the area, resulting in a clash on Oct. 15 that left four dead.
But despite Kasit’s controversial stance, his experience has made him a key player in Abhisit’s Cabinet, which has been otherwise criticized for its raft of relatively inexperienced players.
Kasit said before his appointment that his first task would be hosting an ASEAN summit next month or in February, but said he also planned to press for Thaksin’s extradition.
“I have to talk to the countries which allow Thaksin to use their soil to launch a smear criticism against his homeland,” he said.
Thaksin fled into exile in August as corruption cases piled up against him, and he was sentenced on Oct. 21 to two years in jail for breaching graft laws by helping his wife buy state-owned land.
But questions will be asked about Kasit’s suitability for the post given Abhisit’s vow to reconcile Thailand’s warring factions.
“Kasit was always on the PAD stage and he is now rewarded for his repeated fierce attacks against Thaksin,” said Surapong Tovichakchaikul, a lawmaker with the Thaksin-aligned Puea Thai party.
“There is no doubt this is a conspiracy among Democrats, the military and PAD to crush Thaksin,” he said.
Abhisit’s coalition was created with former allies of Thaksin and small coalition parties who defected from supporting the previous government, which was ousted by a court ruling on Dec. 3.