Thailand Names Interim Prime Minister

The Associated Press
Friday, September 29, 2006; 2:43 AM

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The leaders of Thailand's military coup have chosen a former army commander and close adviser to the powerful king as interim prime minister, the auditor general said Thursday night.

Jaruvan Maintaka described Surayud Chulanont as the new leader in comments to Thai reporters at the opening of Bangkok's new international airport that were carried on an official government Web site Friday.

"Yes, definitely, Gen. Surayud is the prime minister. He is the suitable person," Jaruvan was quoted as saying by the Public Relations Department.

She later denied making those comments, telling The Associated Press Friday "I didn't say so," and declining to comment further.

The ruling military council has not yet announced the candidate. Still, all Friday morning Bangkok newspapers carried headlines that Surayud, a highly regarded 62-year-old retired officer, would probably head the new government.

His appointment was expected to be announced this weekend or Monday, after it receives approval from King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The country's ruling military council seized power from Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless coup Sept. 19 while the premier was abroad. The council vowed to name a civilian prime minister within two weeks.

Thaksin's key supporters in the military have been sidelined and backers of the coup have received promotions, according to an annual list of senior officers released Friday.

A number of officers loyal to Thaksin were removed from commands and transferred to either inactive positions or attached to various agencies that put them outside the chain of command. An announcement on official media said the king endorsed the reshuffle within top military ranks.

Patchara Kampitak, president of the Reporters Association of Thailand, told The Associated Press that reporters from several Thai media outlets visited coup leader Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin on Friday and received assurances "about freedom of the media."

Kampitak quoted Sondhi as saying the interim premier would not be a "surprise to the media."

"His face is familiar to you (reporters) and he is the man to `wai' (greet with respect) without any qualms," Kampitak quoted Sondhi as saying.

Akara Thiroj, a spokesman for the council, said an interim constitution has been completed and sent to the Royal Palace. He said he hoped the constitution could be announced Saturday or Sunday, followed by the formal announcement of the prime minister over the weekend or Monday.

"The media seems to know more than I do. Every newspaper put his name on the front page," Akara said when asked who the new prime minister would be.

The other much-touted possibility for the job had been former World Trade Organization chief Supachai Panitchpakdi, who heads the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development.

Over a 40-year career in the military, Surayud garnered a reputation for effectiveness, tact and incorruptibility. Upon his retirement in 2003, he was appointed to the Privy Council, the top advisory body to the king.

During his career, he fought Thai communist insurgents and handled the sensitive situation along the embattled Cambodian border during the 1980s. He was regarded as close to the American military, which praised him throughout his career.

A devout Buddhist, Surayud spent time as a monk after leaving the army and often said he had no intention of entering the political fray.

Korn Chatikavanij, deputy general secretary of the Democrat Party, which had opposed Thaksin, said earlier that Surayud is an "appropriate" choice.

Although being a former general might give the outside world the impression the military was merely transferring power to one of its cronies, that would be neither true nor relevant, he said.

"What is important is domestic reconciliation and Gen. Surayud is ideal for that," Korn told The Associated Press.

The coup leaders accused Thaksin of corruption and causing schisms in Thai society. He is now in London and has not indicated if or when he may try to return to Thailand.

Large demonstrations early this year demanding his ouster _ following allegations of corruption and abuse of power _ reflected a polarized Thai society, and many Thais have greeted the coup as a resolution of that crisis.

The United States, which has decried the coup as a setback to democracy, on Thursday suspended $24 million in assistance to Thailand.

© 2006 The Associated Press