New Thai PM Pledges Reconciliation, Economic Revival

BANGKOK ~ Thailand’s new prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva says he will unveil a “grand plan” for reconciliation and the revival of the economy after months of political turmoil.

The Oxford-educated 44-year-old made the comments in his first public speech as premier after receiving an official royal decree of appointment on Wednesday from widely revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

British-born Abhisit, the head of the Democrat Party, won a parliamentary vote on Monday with the help of defectors from the former ruling party which was loyal to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawtra.

“It is my every intention to restore the picture of Thailand that friends all around the world used to know,” he said. “I will do this through a grand plan of reconciliation based on the rule of law and democratic process.”

Dressed in a white ceremonial uniform and speaking in Thai and then English, Abhisit said protests against the previous government which blocked Bangkok’s airports had damaged Thailand’s image internationally.

His speech gave few specific policy details but Abhisit said he wanted not just to end the turmoil “but also take Thailand forward politically and economically.”

Television showed King Bhumibol signing the decree, followed by a stern-faced Abhisit prostrating himself in front of a portrait of the 81-year-old monarch at the headquarters of the Democrat Party.

Abhisit earlier said his government would announce an economic stimulus program by January and pledged to choose a “competent” cabinet.

His cabinet list is expected Wednesday or Thursday and a hotly-tipped candidate for finance minister is Korn Chatikavanij, a former manager at investment bank JPMorgan Chase and the Democrats’ deputy leader.

Korn studied with Abhisit at Oxford, taking the same course, and said on Wednesday he was “ready for the finance minister post” if asked.

“The issue of the economy is very challenging,” he said, adding that Thailand not only had to repair investor confidence shattered by the prolonged political turmoil but also deal with the global financial crisis.

Around 300 policemen stood guard with sniffer dogs at the party headquarters on Wednesday, following violent protests outside parliament on Monday by supporters of the old government.

In a separate meeting with tourism industry representatives, Abhisit said he regretted the damage done to the country by the week-long occupation of Suvarnabhumi international airport and the smaller Don Mueang domestic hub.

Up to 350,000 passengers were stranded and the economy battered by the anti-government protests by the royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) – which counts a Democrat Party lawmaker among its key leaders.

The PAD accused the previous ruling party of being a corrupt front for Thaksin and of trying to damage the monarchy.

The airport closures only ended after a court on December 2 dissolved the ruling, pro-Thaksin People Power Party over electoral fraud charges and forced then-premier Somchai Wongsawat from office.

Abhisit faces further protests by Thaksin’s supporters.

Chinawat Haboonpad, one of the leaders of the so-called “red shirts”, said supporters had started gathering in Bangkok’s historic district and planned to march to parliament when Abhisit gives his policy address next week.

Twice-elected Thaksin was overthrown in a military coup in September 2006 and although he lives in exile to escape a jail term on corruption charges, Thailand remains deeply divided between his supporters and detractors.

The telecoms tycoon alienated elements of the old elite in the palace, military and bureaucracy – the PAD’s core support base – who saw his popularity as a drain on their power.

But the urbane Abhisit has repeatedly failed to connect with Thaksin’s support base among the poor and his party came a distant second to the PPP in elections a year ago.

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