Monday, October 02, 2006

Thailands new prime minister sworn in

As expected a retired General has been sworn in as Thailand's interim prime minister. General Surayud Chulanonts profile from the BBC online site is shown below.

At 62, Surayud Chulanont is an army veteran, and one of the few senior Thai figures who is respected by military and civilian leaders alike.

By choosing him as the country's new prime minister, Thailand's military generals also hope he will quieten fears from the international community, who see the former army chief as a safe pair of hands. They also hope his positive standing, both at home and abroad, will allay fears that the military is choosing one of its own to be the country's leader. They had promised to install a civilian prime minister as soon as possible after the 19 September coup.

After a military career spanning nearly 40 years, Gen Surayud is seen as both a skilful soldier and a tactful leader. He has also gained a reputation for being incorruptible - an important trait given the accusations of graft levelled at his predecessor, the ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

He fought Thai communist insurgents in the 1960s, and later fended off incursions from Burmese troops and ethnic Wa guerrillas.

He expressed his displeasure at the May 1992 uprising, in which many civilians were killed, and campaigned tirelessly for a more modern, accountable army.

Becoming a commander in 1997, he again prioritised the fight against corruption and rights violations - and was seen as a friend to Burmese refugees for the part he played in allowing them to seek refuge in Thailand.

In the late 1990s, Gen Surayud clashed with Mr Thaksin, who wanted to increase business ties with the Burmese military leaders. He was sidelined to the post of supreme commander, a ceremonial rather than influential position.

After leaving the army in 2003, the devout Buddhist spent time as a monk, before being appointed to the Privy Council and becoming a senior adviser to the king.

'Appropriate choice'

Ironically, one of the main legacies from his long military career is his attempt to distance the army from politics. He is seen as pivotal in changing the military from a self-serving, often corrupt, group of individuals into a modern, professional organisation.

In fact Time Magazine once described him as "perhaps the most important Thai military figure of the modern era". There were worries that giving the position of prime minister to a former general might fuel accusations that the coup leaders had no intention of giving up power, despite their promise to hand over a civilian government.

But the army does not appear to see Gen Surayud as military at all. One of the six most senior coup leaders, Gen Winai Pattariya, said recently: "We really consider that a retired general is a civilian."

Political leaders seem to agree. Korn Chatikavanij, deputy general secretary of the opposition Democrat Party, recently described Gen Surayud as an "appropriate" choice. "What is important is domestic reconciliation, and Gen Surayud is ideal for that," he told The Associated Press. In the past, the former general has denied any intention of entering the political arena.

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