Thai military reformer takes the helm

Thailand's king approved a career Army man as the interim prime minister Sunday.

Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej approved Sunday the military junta's appointment of a former Army commander and member of the monarch's inner circle to lead a transitional government. The new interim prime minister is charged with pushing through reforms ahead of promised elections a year from now.

Retired Gen. Surayud Chulanont, a senior adviser to the king who commands wide respect among the Thai public, will replace the democratically elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is now sitting in exile in London after the military chiefs ousted him in a bloodless coup on Sept. 19. General Surayud warned last week that Thaksin's return to Thailand could lead to violence, and repeated calls for "national unity" while appearing reluctant to take the top spot Sunday.

"Frankly speaking, I was assigned to do the job even though I don't want to," Surayud told reporters Sunday. "I just feel it's necessary in a time like this to help out the country.... I received the mandate from His Majesty the King, so I have to take the responsibility."

The appointment of a prime minister is supposed to fulfill junta leader General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin's promise to transfer power from the self-styled Council for Democratic Reform (CDR) to a civilian government within two weeks. But Surayud's close links to the coup leaders, coupled with the king's approval of an interim Constitution that gives the military a strong presence in the new government, have some here questioning the junta's pledge to usher in democratic reforms.

"The interim Constitution gives too much power to the CDR," said Vorajet Phakheerat, a law professor at Bangkok's Thammasat University. "Since the soldiers still have the power, it's not really a civilian government. The situation now is unpredictable."

In addition to providing amnesty for the coup leaders, the interim Constitution empowers the generals to appoint a 250-member Parliament and a committee that will draft a new Constitution within six months. It also allows the junta to fire the civilian administration, despite assurances from the coup leaders last week that the military will now "fade into the background."

The endorsement of the coup, interim Constitution, and prime minister by Bhumibol, who has achieved god-like status after six decades on the throne, should give the transitional government legitimacy among most Thais. Most people here believe that the monarch and his 19 advisers are neutral actors who do not engage in politics. Suggesting otherwise is often deemed offensive, and, in some cases, illegal.

Due to his proximity to Bhumibol, Surayud is seen as one of the few people who can steer the country through what could turn out to be a tumultuous year. As Army commander in the late 1990s, Surayud became known as an incorruptible leader who attempted to disassociate the coup-prone military from politics.

"Surayud is a good choice," said Korn Chatikavanij, a deputy leader of the main opposition Democrat Party. "There's no illusion about the fact that the military is always going to be behind the scenes anyway. Surayud is very well qualified to bring the country back."

But while Surayud's selection may bring a calming presence to a country with deep political divisions, some wonder if he is the best man to implement democratic reforms, particularly after his friends in the junta used their first days in power to ban public dissent, outlaw political gatherings, and intimidate the media. In his role as privy councilor last year, Surayud told a Thai journalist association that the media should not report negative news from the violence-plagued southern provinces, where more than 1,700 have been killed since a Muslim separatist insurgency flared up in January 2004.

"Truthful words that may not be beneficial should be avoided," he said at the time.

Dissent against the junta has been muted so far. But in what some see as a sign of things to come, on Saturday a taxi driver painted the words "destroyers of the country" and "martyr" on his car before slamming it into one of the tanks still surrounding the Parliament.

If proper democratic institutions that allow political differences to be solved peacefully are not set up quickly, analysts say, the divisions within Thai society are only likely to fester.

"To consider the public perception, Surayud is OK as prime minister," said Kaewsan Atibhodi, a legal expert and former senator. "But Surayud's problem is that he has no vision or strategy for reform. He just wants to maintain the status quo and get through the year peacefully, and that won't meet the expectations or demands of the people. This may be a chaotic year."

Surayud Chulanont's resume

• Fought Thai communist insurgents after graduating from a military academy in the 1960s.

• Campaigned for a more accountable army after soldiers killed many civilians in a 1992 uprising.

• Appointed Army commander in 1998, prioritizing the fight against corruption and rights violations.

• Sidelined in 2002 to the ceremonial post of supreme commander after clashing with ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra.

• Appointed to the Privy Council – a hand-picked body of advisers to the king – in 2003.

• Chosen by the king Sunday to be interim prime minister in the wake of last month's coup.

Sources: BBC, AP.

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