Short life expected for new Thai Cabinet

Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda has ended several weeks of mounting confusion by announcing a new Cabinet. But few observers give it much chance of surviving more than a few months.

General Prem has included in the new Cabinet lineup the leaders of five political parties in an attempt to ensure a broad base of support within the lower house of parliament.

But the conflict among self-seeking political factions that brought down the previous coalition is expected to continue under the new one. Analysts believe it could stir a reaction from the military, which is angered by recent attacks on General Prem -- Prem is also commander in chief of the armed forces.

Despite the domestic preoccupations of thai parties, there is a nagging concern among diplomats that if Vietnam and its allies perceive the Thai government to be weak, the delicate problem of Cambodia would be further complicated. As one Western diplomat commented, "It's a little worrying that this should arise in a frontline state with 200,000 enemy troops across the border."

General Prem's new Cabinet is clearly intended to signal that there will be no change in Thailand's stance on foreign and security issues. The prime minister will continue to hold the defense portfolio; appointments to the ministries of foreign affairs and interior remain unchanged.

The prime minister has also committed himself to maintaining the economic policies of his last government, but it is in this area that he may find himself strongly challenged by opposition parties.

The strategy devised by the last Cabinet's deputy premier for economic affairs, Boonchu Rojanasathien, won plaudits from economists as providing the most realistic attempt in years to tackle deep-rooted problems of payments deficits, inflation, and social inequality.

The implications were not just economic. The fight against poverty, one of the main aims of the last government, is also linked to the problem of communist insurgency, long perceived as the major threat to Thailand's security and social order.

A rise in domestic oil prices, the issue on which General Prem's Predecessor was forced to resign, was pushed through parliament. And a minimum price was introduced for Thailand's main crop and export earner, rice, to improve the lot of peasant farmers.

"Prem provided the moral commitment, Boonchu the expertise," commented one observer, adding despondently, "It was the best house of cards Thailand had for years, and Prem couldn't keep it together."

The prime minister's commitment to the former strategy is reflected in his selection of nonpartisan technocrats for certain key economic posts. Boonchu was among those who resigned. The new ministers carry enough expertise and experience to continue the econnomic program, observers say, but they doubt they have either commitment or the skill to stand and fight for these policies.

Opposition to the new Prem Cabinet may prove seriously divided, but there is still a belief among analyst that, as one put it, "The government's so weak it will be in trouble on its own account."

At the center of the problem is Prime Minister Prem himself. A cool and somewhat aloof figure, General Prem still enjoys public respect as the "Mr. Clean" of Thai politics. However, his distaste and lack of aptitude for devious political maneuvering, have shown him up as an ineffectual government leader.Early and decisive action by General Prem, observers agree, could have averted the recent government collapse.

An additional concern for the prime minister is that there have been clear signs of restlessness among military commanders.

As the recent interparty squabbing escalated into a government crisis, military commanders meeting in Bangkok are understood to have put forward the idea of a government by council, bypassing parliament.

It was only by threatening to set up a nonpartisan "national government" that General Prem managed to curb the haggling over Cabinet posts that delayed formation of the new government.

Political observers set little store by prediction in Thailand's volatile politics, but there is a suspicion that if General Prem's new Cabinet runs into serious difficulty, he will choose or be pushed into adopting just such a solution.

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