New Thai leader tackles Cabinet line-up

Thailand’s new prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva began working on his Cabinet line-up on Tuesday as hundreds of police stood guard against protests by angry supporters of the old government.

Abhisit’s Democrat Party won over enough lawmakers to clinch a Parliament vote on Monday, two weeks after a court dissolved the ruling party loyal to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra following six months of political turmoil.

The party said Oxford-educated Abhisit’s new Cabinet would strive to boost the economy, which has taken a battering from anti-government street protests peaking with the siege of Bangkok’s two airports late last month.

“Abhisit will oversee the economic team because this government gives priority to economic matters,” Democrat Party secretary general Suthep Tuagsuban said.

He said Cabinet posts were still being hammered out but would be divided between the Democrats and their smaller coalition partners, whose defection from the now-defunct People Power Party gave Abhisit his slim majority.

Abhisit, 44, is awaiting the official decree from Thailand’s widely revered king, which will make him the kingdom’s 27th premier, and said only that he was “preparing for work”.

Democrat Party executives expect the royal decree on Wednesday, and plan to name a Cabinet by the end of the week.

‘No time for a honeymoon’
“Everything will progress swiftly as there is no time for a honeymoon for this government,” said executive Alongkorn Polabut, adding that a policy statement would be discussed at a Cabinet meeting next Tuesday.

As Democrat leaders met behind closed doors, about 300 police stood guard outside their Bangkok headquarters where dozens of supporters of Thaksin—dressed in red shirts—had gathered to denounce Abhisit’s election.

“Police have deployed forces at the Democrat headquarters since Monday and this morning [Tuesday] we will send more police there,” said Major General Amnuay Nimmano, deputy metropolitan police commander.

Clashes broke out between police and the “red shirts” on Monday after about 100 protesters gathered outside Parliament and hurled traffic barriers and stones to try to block the main gate to the building.

There were about 40 protesters outside the Democrat Party headquarters on Tuesday, and they left after representatives of a pro-Thaksin group laid a wreath, denouncing the party as a puppet of the army.

In the afternoon, about 300 factory workers turned up, demanding Abhisit help them get their year-end bonuses.

Analysts say the Democrats, who lost the elections in December last year to the People’s Power Party (PPP), will have a tough time reconciling Thailand’s opposing factions who support or detest Thaksin, who was removed in a coup in September 2006.

Many of Thaksin’s supporters feel they were robbed of their democratic rights after the courts removed two PPP prime ministers this year and then dissolved the party, creating the opening for the Democrats to fill the void.

Monday’s vote followed six months of disruptive and at times bloody protests by the anti-Thaksin People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

The week-long PAD blockades of the airports left up to 350 000 passengers stranded and badly hit Thailand’s economy.

Protests also forced the government to postpone a December summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but the foreign ministry announced on Tuesday it would now be held from February 24 to 26.

PAD supporters claimed the previous government was running the nation on behalf of Thaksin. The twice-elected telecoms tycoon remains in exile abroad to avoid corruption charges.

Thaksin had alienated elements of the old elite in the palace, military and bureaucracy, who saw his popularity as a drain on their power.

British-born Abhisit, an urbane politics graduate, had repeatedly failed to connect to Thaksin’s support base among the rural and city-dwelling poor.—Sapa-AFP

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