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December 18, 2008

New Thai PM vows to fix "failed" politics
Thailand's new prime minister pledged Wednesday to fix the country's "failed political system" and work for all Thais, who have been divided by six months of political unrest culminating in a siege of Bangkok's airports, reported the Associated Press.

Abhisit Vejjajiva said in his inaugural address that one of his goals was to restore Thailand's tourist-friendly image as "The Land of Smiles."

The eight-day airport shutdown battered the country's essential tourism industry and stranded more than 300,000 travelers.

Wearing a white ceremonial uniform, Abhisit vowed to reunite the deeply divided nation.

"I am well aware that the political situation is abnormal," said Abhisit, speaking shortly after he was sworn in. "My first job is to end a failed political system."

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country's constitutional monarch, formally endorsed Abhisit's nomination as prime minister Wednesday evening, making him the nation's third prime minister in four months.

Abhisit, 44, was voted by Parliament to be the country's prime minister on Monday. He is the first leader of a civilian government led by an opponent of exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has loomed over Thai politics since he was ousted by a military coup in 2006.

He delivered his inaugural address in both Thai and English, in an attempt to reach out to an international audience. He also made overtures to the impoverished rural masses who were the foundation of Thaksin's support.

"I will work for all Thai people, both those who voted for me and against me," he said. "Today, our country must be united."

He said his government would retain populist policies - including cheap credit and health care - implemented under Thaksin.

Abhisit acknowledged the seriousness of the challenges he faces.

"I know one person can't do everything and solve every problem," he said. "I know I can't make everyone love me or support me. But I promise I will listen to everyone and work for everyone."

His first priority, Abhisit said, would be to revive Thailand's economy, which economists say is on the verge of recession.

The previous government forecast a contraction of up to 1 percent in the first quarter of 2009 and zero growth in the second quarter.

From a wealthy family of Thai-Chinese origin, Abhisit was educated at Eton and Oxford, where he earned an honors degree in philosophy, politics and economics. His first name means "privilege" in Thai and his friends call him by his foreign nickname, Mark.

In an apparent effort to counter his image as an upper-class elitist, Abhisit recounted his days campaigning among the poor across the nation.

"I am aware of your hardship and your poverty," Abhisit said. "I have not forgotten."

Abhisit, after meeting on Monday with representatives of the agriculture sector, tourism industry and labor groups, said his government will also announce a stimulus package next month.

"The government's first task will be to tackle unemployment," he told reporters, adding the package will address problems resulting from the domestic and global economic slowdown.

Thailand's stock exchange has risen about 5 percent since Abhisit was voted in on Monday. Political instability contributed to a 48 percent decline this year in the country's SET index.

Some Cabinet seats are expected to go to lawmakers who used to be allied with Thaksin. A group of former Thaksin supporters, led by Newin Chidchob - once one of the ex-premier's closest allies - switched their allegiance during Monday's vote, giving Abhisit a thin majority in Parliament.

Abhisit joined the country's oldest party, the Democrats, in 1992 and rose in the party ranks and in popularity, especially among the educated in Bangkok who took to his clean record, polite demeanor, articulate if somewhat bland speeches and movie-star looks.

His appointment is expected to bring at least a brief period of calm, although the move has unleashed small and sporadic new protests by supporters of the previous government.

The Democrats had been in opposition since 2001, when Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon, first took power.

Military leaders ousted Thaksin in September 2006, accusing him of corruption, keeping him in exile and controlling the country for an interim period until elections in December 2007 brought Thaksin's allies back into power.

He returned to Thailand in February 2008 to face corruption charges but later fled into exile again and was convicted in absentia.

Thailand's recent political convulsions began in August when anti-Thaksin protesters took over the seat of government to demand the ouster of Thaksin's allies.

Since then, a series of court rulings resulted in the ouster of two Thaksin-allied prime ministers.

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