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Thailand's Crippled Government Appoints New PM

Thailand's Crippled Government Appoints New Prime Minister


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's crippled government appointed on Wednesday (September 17) a new prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, but the soft-spoken bureaucrat with questionable family relations faces the same anti-democracy forces which toppled two previous elected leaders.

Somchai is married to a politician, Yaowapa, who is a sister of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin was ousted in a bloodless September 2006 military coup.

"I cannot deny my family ties, but what matters is how I behave," Somchai told a news conference on Tuesday (September 16).

"My priority is to return normality" to Bangkok. "I personally do not harbor any anger or hatred against anybody."

Thailand's political crisis has become so bitter that Somchai, 61, plans to temporarily govern from newly converted rooms inside Bangkok's sprawling domestic Don Muang airport, on the northern edge of the capital.

Anti-government mobs have blocked the prime minister's office and other administration buildings since Aug. 26, paralyzing the previous prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, and more than 2,000 of his officials.

A belligerent, anti-democracy protest by more than 10,000 people -- grouped under a deceptive People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) banner -- continued on Wednesday (September 17) to blockade the prime minister's office, known as Government House.

After frequent tropical rain, the site degenerated into a muddy, smelly gathering where people camp out to hear PAD leaders shout speeches from a stage in front of the prime minister's office.

Somchai's polite, business-like public demeanor is starkly different from rough-and-ready Samak who did not mind appearing crude, rude and tantrum-prone while repeatedly cursing Thai journalists probing his inability to end PAD's protests.

A Constitution Court stripped Samak of power on Sept. 9 because of a conflict of interest, after he received payment for hosting two cooking shows on television while prime minister.

Bangkok's protests were expected to continue against the new prime minister, who is widely perceived as too close to Thaksin.

Somchai becomes prime minister when King Bhumibol Adulyadej endorses him -- which may occur within days.

Somchai was a caretaker prime minister during Samak's final days, and was also Samak's education minister. Earlier, Somchai was a judge and permanent justice secretary.

He became prime minister by winning 298 of Parliament's 480 seats on Wednesday (September 17).

Thailand's Parliament is dominated by Samak's People Power Party and a fluctuating, squabbling coalition of five smaller parties, which achieved power in a December election.

The Supreme Court slapped Thaksin with a second arrest warrant on Tuesday (September 16) after he failed to appear at a corruption trial for allegedly arranging a government loan to Burma's military regime in 2004.

The cash was to enable Burma to purchase telecommunications equipment from Shin Satellite, then owned by billionaire Thaksin's family.

Thaksin and his fugitive wife, Pojaman, are also dodging earlier arrest warrants issued after the couple jumped bail in August, to avoid an alleged real estate corruption case at the Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions.

Judicial officials were considering how to demand Britain extradite Thaksin and his wife back home.

Two years ago, the coup against Thaksin was cheered by much of Bangkok's relatively wealthy elite, academia, business community, media and middle-class, because they opposed Thaksin's alleged corruption.

PAD originally began as a street campaign to oust Thaksin, and then turned against Samak, labeling him a "proxy" of Thaksin.

PAD opposes the current system of one-person-one-vote, because Thailand's mostly rural population overwhelmingly preferred Thaksin and Samak in past elections.

PAD prefers a partially appointed parliament and other limits on elections.

Their support includes monarchists, military factions, businessmen, and some among Bangkok's middle-class who are impressed by PAD's ability to overturn nationwide elections.

PAD's round-the-clock protests became an unsolvable problem for the previous prime minister, because Samak did not know how to clear them from around his office without sparking bloodshed.

The military and police remained mostly passive when confronted with PAD's protests, but authorities said they will arrest PAD's top leaders for alleged insurrection.

One anti-PAD man was beaten to death and several people were injured during street clashes on Sept. 2 when the two sides fought with machetes, clubs, slingshots, rocks and fists.

Two rival former army officers told the Bangkok Post they had "trained" fighters on each side.

Most of Bangkok has remained calm, but this Buddhist-majority country -- a staunch U.S. military ally -- has become weary with the costly crisis.

After Samak declared a brief state of emergency earlier this month, many international tourists avoided the "Land of Smiles" amid worries that Thailand was unstable, especially after PAD temporarily blocked some airports.

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Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

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